Collaboration: The Essential Emotions
Successful collaboration is built on a high level of emotional literacy.
Without the capacity to generate and sustain certain feelings, our ability to collaborate authentically with others isn’t possible. By the time we reach adulthood, our emotional repertoire has become habituated. This, of course, is fueled by our thinking process which is also fixed into patterns. Beliefs are the engine below stoking emotions that are triggered by outside events and social interactions.
Depending on the culture in which your thinking, beliefs and emotions were cultivated – you are either swimming upstream or downstream by the time you reach the workplace. Style and personality also play an important role in the mix.
Increasingly, today’s workplace “models” are trending towards collaboration. In many cases, management hasn’t made it beyond the buzzword – another case of language and practice being miles apart.
But there are growing examples of companies that are really serious about shaping environments and culture towards more collaboration. Beyond philosophy, these organizations understand that without collaboration, real engagement is not possible. Demographic and generational forces and the power of social media and sharing are also driving the trend towards collaboration.
So far, I haven’t read anything about the emotional skills that form the essential structure of collaborative relationships. The legacy of hierarchical, authoritarian and competition-driven cultures isn’t collaboration friendly. The emotions that many put down as soft are the very emotions that create the core of effective collaborative interaction.
Most of us are not schooled in the practice of the kinds of emotions that support collaboration. We don’t get recognition or promotions for displaying appreciation or equanimity towards others – but these are the very feelings that promote an atmosphere of comfort, inclusion, creativity and trust.
Recent work in neuroscience has shown that social-emotional learning goes on throughout the adult life. Our early emotional learning does not have to determine how we relate to others. The beauty of the discovery of neuroplasticity gives all of us the freedom to work consciously to change our emotional habits.
Since the brain is a social organ – and emotional contagion is real, how we relate in groups is always reinforcing and reshaping our cognitive landscape. Most of the time it is being done outside of our conscious awareness. Developing collaborative skills requires a high degree of emotional awareness and exceptional competencies of self-management.
The very good news is that our potential for learning and re-learning is open-ended. Just as collaborative learning cultures are a constant work in progress – so are we. We can learn to cultivate the emotions that contribute to the collaborative process. The more that we familiarize ourselves with how these emotions work in other areas of our lives – the more we can practice these emotions with those engaged in our collaborative efforts.
- Empathy – No question about it – the big-ticket emotion that provides the foundation for collaboration, sharing and openness. Developing our skill in understanding what is important to others is critical. Allowing ourselves to be interested in and touched by other’s experience is essential to the art of collaboration.
- Patience – An emotion in short-supply these days. This powerful emotion (and skill) serves us in every single area of our lives – and is crucial when we strive to meet others in an open and nonjudgmental place. Patience is also one of the most valuable emotions in our ability to listen – authentically – to others.
- Curiosity – I consider this one of the “neutral” emotions. You don’t have to like or agree with someone to demonstrate curiosity. Many people have turned off their curiosity antennae. They’re inundated, overloaded and even bored. They’ve heard it all. The natural curiosity of human nature suffers. Curiosity is a wonderful asset – and a spark to other emotions like enthusiasm and wonder.
- Forgiveness – Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes they are even biggies. Unless we are engaged in a deeper understanding of where we stand in terms of forgiving and letting go (that doesn’t have to mean condoning or denying our own feelings) it’s hard to work and collaborate with others effectively. Old emotional baggage will resurface unless we are on top of it.
- Passion – What are you passionate about? Some people are passionate about the process and potential of collaboration. Whatever it is – it’s likely to be a valuable asset in your collaboration skills tool kit. Emotions are contagious– so your passion is catchy within the circles in which you collaborate.
- Appreciation – Gratitude goes hand in hand with appreciation. Both require us to step back and take a deeper look at what’s right and working for us (and others). These emotions are perspective shifters – sometimes on the spot. Appreciation works magic in groups because it is the polar opposite of judgment. Judgment distances us from others – it creates artificial separation. Appreciation is a joining emotion – even if it’s self-appreciation.
- Confidence – It’s essential to bring confidence to the table. Confidence is a very self-empowered state and it can be inspiring to others. It can lift a group’s energy. But it’s important to be aware of the ways we express our confidence so that we don’t alienate others – especially if our stylistic tendencies are more assertive. Keep in mind that the goal of true collaboration is to invite the full participation of everyone.
- Optimism – Collaborative efforts can be hard work. As blogger Gwyn Teatro beautifully states it, “(Collaboration) is a labor of love ~ deeper and more focused. It holds more tension and requires us to listen to each other and communicate on a variety of levels through diverse means.” Sometimes the natural cycles of conflict arise when we are working through difficult terrain with others. Often well-intentioned people can get stuck when trying to communicate, especially when decisions need to be made. Maintaining our optimism through those challenging rough patches takes work – but the sustaining qualities of optimism can keep us emotionally afloat.
- Calmness – Ah…the elusive emotion – especially in the face of dealing with others in important and difficult circumstances. Calmness is the great enabler of patience – and in fact, of all emotional awareness. There’s abundant research that shows that we cannot think clearly (using the so-called “executive center”) of our pre-frontal cortex when we have activated our limbic system’s flight or fight response. Developing knowledge of what triggers us emotionally is the key to cultivating more calmness in our thinking and approach to others.
All of these emotions, critical to successful collaboration, are within our power to cultivate. Take stock and identify what are the dominant emotions you feel on a typical work day. Understand that you’ve habituated these feelings every day through cognitive and behavioral reinforcement.
If you believe in the potential and transformative effects of collaboration, these skills will serve you at every level of your collaborative interactions. The beauty is that they will also transform every other area of your life. It’s a process – and it’s doable.
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants