The idea of collaboration tends to call to mind thoughts of compromise or win/win solutions. For some people, the idea of collaboration is exciting because it is a way to come to a solution that mutually agreeable for everyone, and everyone is able to leave the conflict on good terms. However, for other people, the idea of compromise or collaboration is daunting or may even run averse to their idea of how the problem should be solved. While collaboration has many benefits, some challenges make it difficult to achieve in some cases. This is why understanding the process, benefits, and challenges is important in determining if collaborative problem solving is the best style for the situation.
Collaboration Defined and Distinguished
Collaboration is often considered the same or similar to win/win solutions because it focuses on meeting the needs of each participant. The goal of collaborative problem solving is to create a solution for each party that leaves everyone satisfied with the result. Effective collaboration will consider not only the goals, but the beliefs of the parties, their expectations, and their underlying interests. This style of problem solving requires a solid relationship of trust and understanding between the parties to move forward effectively. A willingness to empathize and receptively listen to the other party is also an integral part of the process. Collaboration sets collective well-being and empowerment as the goal and implements the tactics necessary to keep all parties engaged in and excited about the process.
It is important to distinguish between collaboration and cooperation. While collaboration will often involve a spirit of cooperation, cooperation will not automatically lead to collaboration or win/win. Cooperation is simply the willingness to work with the other party in a respectful and supportive manner. It is common to see cooperation in other styles of problem solving, such a compromise, where one party will cooperate by agreeing to a modified proposal of their own to find common ground. In a similar situation, collaboration would seek to find a way to give the compromising party their full proposal or meet all the needs asked for while also providing for the needs of the other party. Therefore, it is important to define both collaboration and cooperation when solving problems to ensure that the participants know whether the ultimate goal is working together to achieving a creative solution to satisfy everyone.
A Collaborative Mindset
Collaboration requires a willingness to approach situations with an open mind and for the good of all involved. It requires participants to set aside any selfishness and to see the needs of the other party with the same validity as their own. It operates best from a mindset of abundance. Abundance thinking sees that one person achieving their goal does not necessarily mean that another will not, but that there is enough for everyone. Another way to achieve this is by presenting solutions in a “yes, and” frame rather than an either/or mindset. This shift creates space for all solutions rather than seeing other people’s solutions as competition.
A collaborative mindset also requires patience. It takes time to work through all solutions to create a satisfying result for each party. The problems will likely not be resolved in one meeting but will need to be solved and addressed as part of a long-term plan. When a solution works for one party, it is easy for that party to believe the process is complete, but working with patience and understanding that the goal is not only about achieving one’s own interests allows the parties to continue to work together until everyone is satisfied. It requires overcoming the desire to look out for one’s own needs and to work to meet everyone’s needs, regardless of the time.
Competitiveness often stands in the way of collaboration. Many people instinctively approach conflict through a competitive lens, having grown up in competitive environments. Competitiveness in the workplace may also drive adults away from collaboration, especially in an environment where solving problems individually rather than collectively is a sign of independence and initiative. Professionals often attempt to solve problems on their own for long periods before reaching out for help. Cultivating a collaborative mindset requires setting aside the competitive drive and the desire for independence to effectively consider the ideas and solutions of others. While it is not often easy for professionals to ask for help, it helps to build a culture where ideas are shared freely and problems are solved collectively. This in turn allows a collaborative mindset to be the default when problems arise.
Practical Tips for Collaboration
When attempting to solve problems, certain behaviors and techniques will move a resolution toward collaboration. If a facilitator or party practices the following, it will likely lead toward a win/win situation.
- Agreeing to use collaborative practices to solve the problem—without an agreement, collaboration can quickly merge into competition
- Practicing patience with the process
- Creating a culture of safety and trust
- Respecting each other and everyone’s ideas
- Reframing the situation as a mutual problem to avoid criticism and blame of the other party
- Encouraging the parties to assert underlying interests and feelings about the matter at hand
- Talking openly about the issue and being transparent about wants or needs
- Practicing flexibility having an open mind, especially when it comes to creative solutions
- Reflectively listening to the other party and repeating to better understand the opposite point of view
- Using the differences in opinion to create creative solutions rather than creating opposition
- Empowering each other for change and growth through the process—including empowering yourself to make the necessary suggestions
- Highlighting the benefits for all in each possible solution
- Stating a clear plan of action to achieve the resolution decided upon
Challenges and Benefits of Collaboration
Collaboration requires a significant amount of time, effort, trust, and cooperation, so it is best used when both the issue and the relationship between the parties are important to the participants. It functions best in environments where the parties are comfortable being cooperative and assertive with the other parties and thrives in spaces where trust has been established. Collaboration has been used in workplace situations and in family and personal matters. It is often used in mediations and negotiations, and collaborative practice can benefit from a third party facilitator overseeing the process to ensure that everyone is approaching the situation in the best possible way. However, if the situation is not one where the issue or relationship is important to each party, it would likely be more beneficial to save the time and energy it would require and use another style of problem solving.
Many benefits can result from effectively using collaboration to problem solve. These differ with respect to the type of issue, but most collaborative solutions will reap most of the following benefits:
- Improved flexibility within the relationship
- Engagement of all parties in the problem-solving process
- Increased awareness and empathy for the other parties
- New channels of communication between the parties
- Efficiency in problem solving in the long term
- Commitment to the final solution based on participation in the outcome
Additionally, workplaces have seen several benefits to implementing collaborative problem-solving strategies in the company, including:
- Engaged and healthier employees
- Productive meetings and individuals
- Innovative ideas that lead to higher earning potential
- Higher retention rates
- Increased profitability
These benefits are not without challenges as well. Some challenges include:
- Indecisive participants
- Differences in decision-making processes (especially with large clients)
- Too many parties
- Negative participants or thoughts
While these challenges can derail a collaboration, awareness of challenges will give facilitators or participants the ability to recognize and address challenges when they do arise. Most challenges can be overcome by re-framing options or statements, giving participants time to address the issues they see in the process of reminding everyone of the purpose of collaboration. However, if the collaboration is fully derailed, it would likely be best to move to a different type of problem solving.
Final Words – Resolving Problems with Collaborative Conflict Style
Collaboration can bring a fresh perspective to tired problems in a variety of situations. It focuses on creating a solution beneficial for everyone involved. However, it requires the participants to be ready to set aside competition and provide open and effective communication and cooperation. Commitment to the process can help overcome obstacles and create benefits for the parties that will outlast the mediation, negotiation, or problem-solving meeting. The next time a problem arises, consider implementing collaborative styles to creating a winning and supportive environment for everyone involved.