I am leaving my half-drafted post about collaboration, which I started last week, aside for the moment. Still want to write about collaboration, but from a different angle than originally intended. Yesterday, I was on a countryside walk (yup, I like me walks!) courtesy of a meetup group – a connection made through a new friend. There I was on a walk with nine people, eight of whom I had never met before and one whom I had only met briefly a week before (at a movement workshop). One of these walkers is called Taylor and in a very unexpected way we ended up talking about collaboration. My conversation with Taylor particularly drew my attention to three ideas: (1) we are constantly in processes of collaboration – life is comprised of a series of collaborations (2) what might help us enrich our collaborations is to have greater awareness of of what we are bringing to them, e.g. our assumptions, prejudices, narratives (3) each of our collaborations goes through stages/cycles and so in times of challenge we might benefit from asking ourselves “Where are we at this collaboration?” rather than simply concluding “This isn’t working and can’t work” or “You are just impossible to work with!”
Before lunch, Taylor had asked me that age-old question: “What do you do?” Though it is a pretty open question, people ask it wanting to know “What do you do for a living?’ My answer: I support people involved in social change to work with conflict, engage with greater self-awareness, connect more deeply with their values and what’s important to them. I do all of this wanting to help people strengthen their efforts to drive social change – helping people not only to get out of their own way, but to unleash their inner assets. After lunch, she walked up to me and said “I think there is something you can help me with” and then told me she recently committed herself to a project called ‘Photography and Social Change’. As happens, I knew about this project – it had caught my eye in an email from GlobalNet21. In any event, she started to say that she was interested in working with stills and video. That was the starting point from which we took a journey that went in all sorts of directions before explicitly finding its way to talk of collaboration.
Our dialogue pretty much involved me asking Taylor questions, e.g., What does the think of when she thinks social change? What does she think of when she thinks about working with photography? When she puts the two together? That’s how we began and then my questions responded to what seemed to be alive in Taylor in any given moment. I also did a lot of reflecting – saying to her what I thought I was hearing from her in terms of what’s important to her, what questions she’s grappling with, her assumptions, her passions, and so on. One milestone in the journey was the discovery that Taylor sees herself and others as storytellers and she wants to capture people’s stories. Another milestone was Taylor revealing that one idea which is really alive for her at the moment is that human beings are constantly on movement – that ‘elusive moment’ photographers sometimes say they want to capture is totally non-existent. That is, people are constantly in movement and having to adapt to the constant change around us. At the moment, when Taylor thinks social change, she thinks about this constant movement, adaptation, and flexibility. For her ‘social change’ is not something you do – it simply is how we are. And she also thinks about the stories of a particular group of people, when she thinks about social change. This includes this surprisingly varied relationships these people have with their identity – people’s stories can take us beneath what you see on (and often assume from) the surface.
And so it is, that Taylor wants to get involved in this Photography and Social change project. She imagines that these two distinct ideas and topics will come together, though at this stage she doesn’t know how. Realising this was also a milestone in our journey. Turns out, Taylor was wanting clarity on how to proceed with being involved in this project. Our dialogue helped her see more clearly what’s important to her. Which brings me to yet another milestone – Taylor was in some ways reluctant to move forward on her involvement in this project because she had a fear of failing to be different. She figured this kind of work has been and redone before – that there was little point in doing something unless she could be original, unique, add something. She felt she had to try to come up with a new concept.
Well, we talked about this for a bit – really focusing on the idea that the best way for anyone to come out with something valuable is to connect with their own truth. Her valuable and unique contribution to the project will be the result of her sharing what is true for her – we each have our distinct, unique voice (rooted in our life experience, perspectives, and connections) and this is our gift. We talked about how artists whose work resonates widely have connected with their truth, and in doing so, connected also to a bigger, universal truth. Hugely successful movies and stories (I’m thinking Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and a whole host of fairy tales) draw upon archetypes. I doubt the artists are doing this consciously – it is more of a channeling that happens, a channeling of the universal that tends to arise when we connect deeply with our selves, our inner knowings. But I won’t delve to deeply into this subject right now (maybe a future post!). The point is, another milestone for Taylor was to let go of this idea that she had to try and come up with something new. Instead – and it is likely to involve a lot less try – she could focus on expressing herself and what is truly alive within her. She liked this idea – it got her thinking of the journey ahead as a process of emergence and discovery.
It was on this note we sort of wrapped up this dialogue. We both had enjoyed the exchange; I very much enjoy helping someone with their opening up/expansion process and she felt relaxed and was pleased to have gained some clarity on what matters to her. At this point, Taylor mentioned that she was kind of surprised by our exchange, because she doesn’t normally collaborate so easily. Yes, she really did use the word ‘collaborate’ – not a word I would have chosen to describe what we had been doing. I just thought we were having a conversation. Mutual gratitude shared, we moved on to engaging with others. But when the opportunity arose, I re-connected with Taylor on this subject. I latched onto this idea – did she really see our dialogue as a form of collaboration? And what does she normally find are inhibitors to collaboration? She is, she explained, afraid of getting things wrong, only wanting to present ideas when she feels they are full developed, if not perfect. And she finds it difficult to trust people easily.
And so from there we talked at length about the fear of getting things wrong, about trust, about silliness (sometimes, Taylor gets frustrated by the ways people connect with each other on-line only to be silly and jokey. She sees this as a waste of time. I suggested it might be part of their getting to know each other and trust-building process). We talked about collaboration. Eventually, we stumbled upon what felt like a big milestone for both of us. Taylor had said she isn’t very good at collaborating. But is that true? We ended up weaving a different story/ painting another picture. Taylor is slow to trust people and sometimes quick to be dismissive of them. She can’t openly engage with people unless she trusts them, respects them. We took this information and created the following narrative: Taylor can collaborate and often does so – but usually it takes her a long time to feel free to open herself up with others. So, in some situations the collaboration process gets off to a very slow start. And sometimes, it never gets off the ground because she closes down, and decides she couldn’t possibly open herself up with a certain person or group of people. As we talked, the idea came to me: life is a series of collaborations. And we agreed: Taylor is constantly collaborating with people; she’s just at different stages in different contexts.
And what followed is that a key stage for Taylor, in collaboration, is the building trust stage. But even that takes a certain amount of open-ness – a willingness to connect and engage, despite doubts and reservations. This led to her own admission – she likes to make assumptions and can be quick to do so – a big collaboration inhibitor. So, in the future, she might help the situation by asking ‘Do I trust this person/these people? If not, why not and how can I come to trust them – what would it take on my part? On their part?’ In doing so, she keeps the possibility of collaboration open.
And as for the perfectionist in her – well, we revisited that, too. If, as she now understands, we are in a state of constant flux and movement then it becomes hard to capture anything fully – including a concept or an idea. So, striving perfection is futile – everything is a work in progress.
And so it is, that these three ideas about collaboration are very alive within me right now: (1) we are constantly in processes of collaboration – life is comprised of a series of collaborations (2) what might help us enrich our collaborations is to have greater awareness of what we are bringing to them, e.g. our assumptions, prejudices, narratives (3) each of our collaborations goes through stages/cycles and so in times of challenge we might benefit from asking ourselves “Where are we at this collaboration?” rather than simply concluding “This isn’t working and can’t work” or “You are just impossible to work with!”
Thanks, Taylor (not her real name) – for collaborating with me on exploring the art of collaboration. We didn’t plan it or force it – we just let it unfold as we walked a long. It was fun, light, thought-provoking and I thoroughly enjoyed it!