In today’s world, collaboration is getting increasingly difficult because polarization is becoming increasingly severe. We need to work with other people to make progress on our shared challenges, but the more we retreat into working only with “our people,” the more it becomes harder to work with “those people.”
The polarization around hot-button political, social, and cultural issues is amplified by mainstream and social media bubbles, and it’s quickly seeping into our workplaces. The consequences include no-go areas, flare-ups, division, conflict, and paralysis.
It is even possible to collaborate in these types of environments?
Yes. I’ve seen it with my own eyes many times over the past 30 years all around the world, within businesses, governments, non-profit organizations, and across organizations in communities and countries. It is possible to work together—even with people you don’t agree with or like or trust—if you employ a few simple practices.
Give people space to disagree.
The key to enabling collaboration among people who disagree is not to force them to agree. Instead, give them space to disagree on some issues—to be true to their own experiences and beliefs—and to discover the matters about which they agree.
It’s almost never possible to get people to do things they don’t want to do, so you can’t rely on using force. To the maximum extent possible, you need to enable people to employ their autonomy and agency and create space to freely find what they can align and collaborate on.
Focus on advancing together.
The most common mistake people make in dealing with differences is to insist on commonality, to push hard for agreement, finality, and conclusion.
But, as skillful politicians and diplomats know, ambiguity can enable forward movement: we agree on what we can and must and keep moving forward. Through this experience of continuing to advance together, even if slowly and erratically, we can come to better understand our different perspectives on what’s going on and what we need to do about it. We learn about what we can and must agree on next.
Make time for connection.
We can create the space to move forward together by making time in our meetings for informal activities and discussion—in small groups of two, three, or four participants—such as coffee breaks, meals, drinks, chats, and walks. We can do this during in-person meetings and, with a little adaptation, when we meet online.
These times in between “the real work” allow us to relax, connect as fellow humans, get to know one another better, and discover and build on our common ground. By creating these connections, we can bridge our differences, reduce polarization, and make progress on shared challenges.
Adam Kahane is director of Reos Partners, an organization that helps people move forward together on their most important and intractable issues. He is the author of five books, including his newest release, Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together.