Like other transformational moments in my life, it was a confluence of events that drove my attention to a repetitive theme: How do we “sell” others on the idea of collaboration?  Depending on your situation this could involve persuading a busy executive (perhaps your own supervisor) to invest in the processes and systems that enable people to work together more effectively or encouraging family and friends to support a cause you’re involved in.  If you’re a consultant, like me, “selling” is used literally, and involves convincing a client why they need your services. 

The “selling collaboration” theme emerged from conversations that took place around the same time with people who were seeking my advice on collaboration and guidance I sought from other consultants about growing my consulting practice.  As someone who has worked hard at being self-aware, when a pattern emerges I know it’s time to pay attention to it.  Regardless of how you define selling, the tips provided below are intended to help you convince others to collaborate to achieve a meaningful purpose that is greater than what you could accomplish on your own.

Tip #1: Begin with connection

It may seem obvious that the first place to begin in making the case for collaboration is by getting to know the person you seek to influence.  However, how many of us spend just as much time and effort on building relationships as we do on getting stuff done?  If you invest in maintaining good relationships with others, how well do you really know the people you collaborate with? 

One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had building connection with others occurred during my training as an organization development practitioner.  On the first day of the program we began with “The Big Share.”  Cohort members and faculty took turns answering questions about their background and the transformational experiences that shaped their development.  As an introvert I dreaded having to open up to a group of strangers, but the experience of sharing our life stories helped us to identify with each other and form bonds that facilitated collaboration on group projects throughout the program.  While I’m not suggesting that you share your life story with everyone you meet, it’s important to keep in mind that collaboration requires trust.  Trust is formed when we’re fully present to each other and allow our true selves to be seen.     

Tip #2: Listen for opportunities and resistance

Before we can work together, we need to meet the people we want to collaborate with where they are.  This requires using our active listening skills.  It means giving the speaker our full attention and showing through our words and behavior that we understand what is being said.  It also involves checking the stories we make up based on our interpretation of what the other person is saying.  Without fully understanding who we’re communicating with, we risk misunderstanding the real reasons why the people we seek to influence may be reluctant to collaborate.  We may also lose sight of opportunities to meet mutual goals.      

I once met with a client who requested help forming an association that was intended to improve the quality of life of its members.  The client was eager to move forward, and it was clear from our conversations that this person had spent a lot of time thinking about how the association would form and eventually scale.  As we discussed my role in facilitating a meeting with a core group of members, there appeared to be a disconnect between the client’s expressed desire for a collaborative process and an attachment to how the association would be structured and operate.  Before we formally agreed to work together, I met with the client to check out the validity of my assumptions.  By exploring the client’s willingness to accommodate different perspectives about what the association could look like, I discovered that what had been a perceived reluctance to genuinely collaborate with other association members was my own misunderstanding.

Tip #3: Focus on what motivates others

When we attempt to convince others to collaborate there is a tendency to focus on our own motivations.  However, this approach only works when the people we seek to influence share the same intentions.  Instead we need to understand what motivates the people we want to collaborate with by getting beyond their stated position to find out what beliefs drive their behavior.  Practicing inquiry (asking questions that allow others to reach their own conclusions) and advocacy (promoting your position) can help us be in touch with our own and other’s motivations.  Once we understand what motivates others to collaborate we can help them get on board by providing opportunities to participate that match their interests and skills. 

I joined the leadership group of a local association whose members have developed good relationships that have enabled us to work well together.  However, development of the association has been hampered by our status as volunteers, limited resources, and lack of a clear strategic direction.  As one of the founding members of this association, early on I mentioned the importance of determining our purpose and how we would work together.  However, the reaction of the other leaders made it clear that there was more enthusiasm for organizing community events than for strategic planning.  Realizing they weren’t ready to take this on, I waited for a more opportune time.  This occurred after some successful events were held and the leadership group expanded to include new members.  When some of the leaders suggested doing other types of activities, I connected these ideas to the need for a larger conversation about what it would take for them to be executed.  This led to a collective agreement for a strategic planning session.  

As the last example illustrates, our ability to influence others to collaborate can sometimes involve a decision about whether to hang on or let go.  In situations where the answer is unclear, we can reframe our approach to "selling."  In To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Motivating Others, Daniel Pink states: "In an age of information parity, the services of others are more valuable when we are mistaken, confused, or clueless about our true problem.  In these situations, the ability to move others hinges on problem finding rather than problem solving."  Pink's comment encourages us to examine how we approach "selling."  In other words, is our intention to serve as an extra pair of hands or to strengthen the capacity of our families, organizations, and communities?     

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on August 4, 2016.

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