In his book Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree With, Like or Trust, Adam Kahane presents an unconventional type of collaboration and offers ways to think about collaboration when the situation is increasingly desperate and contentious. Most people’s conventional understanding of collaboration is that it requires everyone in the group to be on the same team and headed in the same direction. The Stretch Collaboration that Kahane presents abandons the assumption of control, gives up unrealistic fantasies of harmony and compliance, and instead embraces messy realities of discord, trial and error, and cocreation. “Stretch Collaboration looks like martial arts practice”. Because this type of collaboration, which is needed for complex and contentious situations, requires flexibility, patience, and discomfort, we must realize that collaboration is only one of four options available.
Before looking at those options though, we must first face the fact that we all “enemify”; we label those who are different than ourselves as others, rivals, adversaries - enemies. We try to simplify complex realities into black and white, us and them. The conundrum is that we need to work with “others” to move forward yet we also feel we must not work with them to avoid treachery. Because of this challenge, Kahane suggests that we first understand when to collaborate before deciding how to collaborate.
There are four basic paths we can take when trying to change a situation or make a transformation: 1) forcing our will; 2) adapting or getting along; 3) exiting the situation; or 4) collaborating. We use each of these options all the time and it can be helpful to be clear about what choice we are making. For example, we force through laws, regulations, money, and weapons. We also often adapt because we can’t change the situation yet we must find a way to go on with our lives. And we exit, such as in divorce or quitting a job. When making the choice to collaborate, it’s important to understand that there are risks with collaborating, especially in complex and untrusting situations, such as the risk of producing too little too slowly, or compromising too much, or betraying what matters to us most. If we decide to enter into collaboration with those we don’t trust, agree with or like we must not take the decision lightly.
Stretch Collaboration requires us to stretch in at least three ways: 1) stretch away from a focus of coming to agreement on collective goals and to move toward embracing both conflict and connection, which seem dichotomous but are necessary for complex, contentious situations; 2) stretch away from insisting on clear agreements about the problem, the solution and the plan and move toward experimenting systematically with different perspectives and possibilities; and 3) stretch away from trying to change what other people are doing and move toward action. The first of these three requirements, embracing both conflict and connection, seems to me to be the most difficult. People generally do not like conflict. Yet to collaborate with those you don’t agree with you have to allow for conflict. It’s also difficult to connect or engage with people you don’t trust or like, yet in Stretch Collaboration we need to connect with those others to expand our awareness, allow for new possibilities, and keep conflict from becoming degenerative.
I can see that for public health professionals, accepting the idea that social problems do not have definitive or objective answers like math or science problems may be challenging. Many in public health have been trained to use conventional problem-solving models which start with the assumption that there is one right answer. Stretch Collaboration requires that each person reveal their perspective so that the group can have a fuller picture. It doesn’t mean that they agree though. The author suggests that some of the most robust actions are those that different players support for different reasons. He notes that President Lyndon Johnson succeeded in landmark civil rights legislation because he attended to the interests of individual legislators while harnessing the individual “wholes” into a collective whole. We cannot just revert to the “good of the whole” because there are multiple wholes.
Conventional collaboration assumes we can control the focus, the goal, or plan to reach the goal. Stretch collaboration offers a way to move forward without being in control – think more of multiple people rafting a river together. Kahane suggests that we need to get good at alternately connecting with others, or engaging, and conflicting with others, or asserting. We will each have a tendency to move toward engaging or asserting and we must learn to do both, and know when to move from one to the other. It’s similar to the job of a good manager reconciling the drive toward self-realization of his individual team members and the need to unite the team to achieve collective realization. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.
Secondly, in order to Stretch Collaborate, we must also be willing to experiment – take a step and then see what happens. If people don’t like, trust, or agree with one another then they may only be able to try short-term, modest, low risk actions. It is more important to act than to agree. Success means we can get unstuck and take a step. I can think of instances of this in our public health work: most recently, the action to support legislation that would pilot a supervised opioid injection facility in Denver as a pilot project. This goes against ideals around the “war on drugs,” however it is an action that may produce results of saving lives and gain lessons to inform the next step. We can’t hold on to cherished ideas at the expense of the emergence of something new. Kahane points out that artists do not manifest already-finished mental pictures. Picasso destroyed images on his canvas covering them up with new images over and over again.
Lastly, to use Stretch Collaboration, we must step from the sidelines into the game of engaging with our “enemies” and then alternately conflicting with one another. This means we must see ourselves at part of the situation. Are we late getting home because of “that darn traffic” or because we are part of the traffic? If you’re not part of the problem, then you can’t be part of the solution.
I have no illusion that this will be easy. I know for the collaborations I currently participate in, Stretch Collaboration would mean inviting people that have contradictory ideas to those we currently have in the group. It would mean throwing away the group norms, values, and agreements we came up with. It would be a painful process of listening to those I don’t agree with, truly listening, and arguing my point when necessary while allowing them to argue their point. It would mean taking an action without a complete plan. And mostly it will require me to be uncomfortable as I become part of the traffic and stop blaming the traffic jam.