Let’s be clear, no one sets out to create a half-hearted collaboration. A wholehearted collaboration is what everyone has in mind when they start one. Wholehearted collaboration happens when people come together with curiosity, compassion and courage to synthesise different perspectives and find something new. A new idea, a new way forward, a new understanding.

It’s exciting, and it’s hard work. Collaborative working includes diverse partners and views, so it is inherently slower and more complex.  Slow and complex doesn’t necessarily mean something is going wrong.  So how do you know if your collaboration is a difficult and worthwhile struggle?  Here are three things you’ll see if your collaboration is wholehearted:


1. People are curious rather than critical

Ah, curiosity.  The eagerness to learn that presents a gift for teachers and a curse for parents of four year olds.   Curiosity is an urge to know and understand. Curiosity creates an ears-pricked, eyes-alert glow that invites you in. When I watch collaborators work together from a place of curiosity their discussions are quieter as people lean in to listen and understand what each other are saying.  It’s quite different from the usual sound of dominant voices, circular argument and rehearsed positions.

When I’m working with interdisciplinary researchers they are playing in the grey space between established disciplines. To find genuinely new avenues they must first understand what each of them brings to the table; the understanding and expertise that they already have. This takes time and patience.  Curiosity is what makes the slower journey enjoyable. Curiosity invites people to share more.  Criticism, on the other hand, shuts people down.  Imagine sharing your latest, most precious work with your colleagues and hearing this:

“That’s a weak argument, the latest research shows your methodology is flawed……”

How would you feel? Deflated? Irritated? Combatorial? Imagine instead that the person says:

“That’s interesting, it’s different to what I’ve read recently, can you say more about why you use that methodology?

The first statement creates defensiveness, which leads you to either shut down or fight your corner.  The second is an invitation for you to expand, deepen and reflect on your approach.  This adds more to the conversation and leads to new thinking.


2. People are compassionate rather than cold

When we collaborate wholeheartedly we bring more of ourselves to the work.  We share more of our ideas, experiences and knowledge.  We feel safe to say, “I don’t know”.  We feel secure that we won’t have our vulnerabilities used against us.  We are unlikely to do this if the atmosphere around us is cold.

Many of the people I work with are more comfortable with the invitation to be dispassionate rather than compassionate.  My argument is that we can be dispassionate in our enquiry whilst being compassionate towards the people we enquire with.  In fact, when we feel that we are in a warm and supportive environment, we are more likely to look at the flaws in our own arguments and to be open to other people’s points of view.


3. People are courageous rather than fearful

Fear stifles innovation and creativity.  Fear makes us hold on tightly to what we know and to avoid risks. In collaboration we may fear being wrong, failing (publicly), wasting time or squandering resources. This makes us defensive.  We protect what we know, we control whatever we can, we batten down the hatches.

The Collins Dictionary defines courage as “the quality shown by someone who decides to do something difficult or dangerous, even though they may be afraid.” When a collaboration is wholehearted you see people collectively committing to doing the difficult thing where outcomes are not guaranteed. But how do you get a collective commitment to courage? You can start by inviting more bravery in the way that people speak.

“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Brene Brown

The courage to speak and say what we truly think is essential for wholehearted collaboration.  When I am working as a facilitator it is my job to create a space where everyone has a voice. This is far more than post-it notes and different formats; it’s about creating the safety that enables people to be brave and speak up. It’s about seeing and hearing each person and nurturing an authentic community.

If you are leading a collaboration, think carefully about what stops people from speaking up.  Unspoken hierarchies are a common culprit.  For instance, when I’m supporting interdisciplinary research there is often a strongly felt sense (rarely voiced) that there is a disciplinary pecking order that looks something like this:

  • Pure Mathematics
  • Pure Sciences
  • Applied Sciences
  • Engineering
  • Social Sciences
  • Humanities
  • Arts

This unspoken sense that some disciplines are more equal than others inhibits true interdisciplinary enquiry.  What unspoken hierarchies inhibit your collaboration? Can you name them and reframe a more equal platform for engagement?

If your collaboration is wholehearted you’ll know it because you know you can take risks, challenge yourself and each other and be tolerant of failure.


Take heart

You know your collaboration is wholehearted when you feel able to fully show up and so do others.  As a result, you see people around you engage wholeheartedly not half-heartedly.

And if that’s not happening for you yet, take heart. You may be in the messy middle where nothing is clear and the ground keeps shifting beneath you. This is normal and essential. If I can help you with coaching or facilitation to find your way through then I’d love to be of service to your cause. Keep going my friends, the world needs you.