What Kind of Collaborator Are You?

Written by
Randy Emelo

Collaborating in Mentoring Relationships

Collaboration—such a simple word with such a complex nature.  Collaboration can lead to increased self-discovery, learning, creativity, and innovation. But collaboration isn’t always easy or productive.  We’ve all sat through meetings, participated in learning groups, worked on projects and so on where we know that the resulting collaboration could have been improved, to say the least.
What Type of Collaborator Are You?So how can we be better collaborators? And how can we increase the chances that our interactions with others will lead to better outcomes and outputs?

Based on the work of Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, creators of the Johari Window, we know that productive group collaboration involves both asking questions of others and providing others information about yourself. This makes sense, as we must tell others about our experience, perspectives, opinions, stories and so on around the topics at hand in order to provide context to others about what we know and why we want to participate.  Asking questions is just as critical, because it’s through asking other people about their experiences, opinions, stories and so on that we can begin to see things differently (from their eyes) and thus understand the topic of discussion in a new way.

So healthy collaboration involves both asking and telling. Seems simple enough, right? You’d be surprised at how many people (myself included) have a tendency to fall into one of these three collaboration-killing traps that hinder our productive ability to purposefully interact with others. Do you fall into one of these traps?

The Turtle

Lack of supportThese are the folks who seem to shut down in collaborative settings; they pull their head into their shells, neither ask nor tell, and are mostly silent. Most often, we see “turtle behavior” in collaborative environments when someone is new to the group (a new employee) or feels the setting is “unsafe” (and thus feel uneasy to join in on the conversation for fear their opinions or thoughts will be perceived as “incorrect” or “wrong” by others). My Advice: If you notice yourself sitting quietly and not participating, remind yourself that the more you can push yourself to ask and tell, the more the entire group will get out of the collaboration.  Remind yourself that collaboration isn’t about being right or correct, it’s about the entire group seeing a situation, issue, product, and so on in a different light. If you see this behavior in others and want to help people “get out of their shell” and collaborate, try to create a trusting and safe environment where diverse ideas are embraced and no idea is immediately criticized or dismissed.

The Inquisitor

You know when you’ve met an inquisitor, because interacting with them feels more like an interview than a collaborative, two-way conversation. Inquisitors tend to ask question after question without providing much context or “telling” the group about why the answers to their questions are important to consider. My Advice: If you find yourself armed with 10 questions going into a collaborative session, it’s helpful to tell people why this information is important to your learning or what you will use this information to accomplish. If your fellow collaborators understand why this information is important for you to know, the better your chances of receiving meaningful answers and prompt thoughtful dialogue, so with this in mind, push yourself to “tell” a bit more. If you see this collaboration-inhibiting behavior in others, help them “tell” by asking them what they hope to accomplish with the information they are requesting or telling a story about how providing context with questions has helped you collaborate better in the past.


Discussion and disagreementYou can recognize a “know-it-all” when you encounter someone who just talks about what they know, why they know it, why their experience is pertinent to the discussion and so on in a collaborative setting. This is a natural trap for people whose jobs require them to “tell” often, like those of executives, SMEs, and the like. There is immense power in challenging what you already know with someone else’s understanding of how things work, and the only way to broaden your frame of reference is to solicit the opinions, stories, perspectives, etc. of others. My Advice: If you notice yourself sharing a lot about what you know in collaborative settings, try asking someone his or her opinion or take on the situation, or try asking if someone else has had experience with a similar situation or issue that they would be comfortable sharing with the group. If you notice this behavior in others, ask the “know-it-all” what questions they have for the group, remind all participants that collaboration involves both asking and telling, and emphasize that collaboration is the most innovative when diverse opinions are shared and discussed.

While these concepts are not highly involved, simply being aware of how you and others tend to collaborate can make a difference.  Be mindful to strike a more even balance of asking and telling during collaborative sessions to help increase your ability and the ability of those around you to more productively collaborate.

Have any other tips for productive collaboration? Tweet at me using my twitter handle, @remelo. I would love to hear your thoughts and insights! 


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