Working Politically | Why we need to collaborate with our enemies

by Liz Skelton, Director, Collaboration for Impact

Tune into any social media or news debate and we are soon saturated in issues which at their heart are about values.   Marriage equality, renewable energy, constitutional recognition, growing inequality, affordable housing and drug testing welfare recipients, to name a few all speak to what we value and hold dear.  Best practice, evidence and research can often fall on deaf ears in how to respond to these issues as they call for us to not just respond but to change.   We are called to examine whats important to us and ask ourselves are we willing to give anything up, to tweak or shift our viewpoint or way of life?   In Collaboration for Impact  we work with people on the ground trying to tackle complex issues in their backyard.  Important questions as to we create better futures in education, employment and justice for our communities and kids essentially speak to what we value and what matters. Its easy to get galvanised by a vision for the future for our kids but where working in complexity gets hard is when we have to work with others who bring views and ideas on how to respond that arent aligned with ours,  may oppose us or even worse – they may see us as the problem.

It is in the history of the word – collaboration – that we might find some answers.  The earliest record of the word Collaboration was from 1860, from the French collaboration, noun of action from Latin collaborare . In its negative sense, “tratorious cooperation with an occupying enemy,” it is recorded from 1940; earliest references are to the Vichy Government of France.  We very rarely talk about this other meaning of the word collaborate – to betray.  Perhaps collaboration requires small betrayals or loss of our fixed position to achieve a bigger purpose that we couldn’t achieve alone?

In a previous life, I managed a peer education organisation which informed people using drugs about harm minimisation principles. We were informing others but also advocating for a pragmatic harm minimisation approach to drug use. It was the mid ‘90s, I was young(er) and fairly naively stepped into a very polarised political debate regarding drug use. It was very easy to get swept up with the ‘rightness’ of our position—“It just made sense!” —and we very quickly polarised ourselves and become predictable. I would attend meetings with police, politicians, social workers and councillors and quickly everyone’s position became predictable, including mine. We were all showing up with our respective areas of expertise yet we were also unconsciously reading off a previously written script which mostly rendered us unable to really hear anything else. For a while little progress was made, until crisis happened: someone died.

There’s nothing like a death to wake people up—and drug-related deaths at dance parties were a big wake-up call in the early ‘90s. We quickly united around a shared purpose: to make sure that didn’t happen again. Of course, we all held different positions about what the response should be, but for once there was an openness to listen. We knew that each of us held some part of the solution—if only we could just get past our own agenda, even momentarily, to share it. I knew who my allies were, on this issue at least. The main challenge I had was engaging with those who (on the face of it) seemed to be most opposed to the idea of providing education and advice to people who chose not to say ‘No’ to drugs. So gradually I entered into a ‘partnership’ with the Head of the Drugs Squad, and we listened deeply to each other’s concerns, ideas and fears. We had to meet fairly covertly, in pubs, mainly! He couldn’t be seen coming into my organisation, as we could lose credibility—and vice-versa. Neither of us brought our conversations to our broader organisations until we’d found a way to make progress together. When that finally happened, I had immediate pushback from the young people I represented: I had ‘colluded with the enemy’—they felt betrayed. But they could also see the wisdom in the technical solution we found. It was a solution which required compromise but it was a solution.

The result of this work was ultimately policy change, and a change in legislation for people who were running events, dance parties and night clubs. The ‘safer dancing guidelines’ were picked up and passed by the local council and then later they became national law. And it only happened by us working together—police, medical people, security, event promoters, councillors and us— with a clear motivating purpose: to prevent more drug-related deaths.

I’m often reminded of that work in my 20s in the organisations I work with today. The need to work consciously across the political landscape is greater, the more senior we become, and the more complex and fast-changing the environment becomes.

But whatever the context— in business or finance, in government, in the not-for-profit sector collaborating on behalf of something that matters always requires us to get beyond our own internal ‘tape-loop’, when we’re not really listening to anything other than the rightness of our own position. If we can understand on a deeper level what is actually going on, and give ourselves a range of interpretations other than, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” then we may just be able to move forward on some of our hardest issues.

Underneath the complaint, the shrill speech, the passionate defence, is often a desire for a ‘noble value’ to be heard. If I listen openly enough and enquire, I’ll hear something that I can agree is deeply noble—and yet still disagree. We’ve all been there, and I know once I can recognise that is what’s playing out , it moves me from argument to compassion and elicits a willingness to stay in it to do it differently.

This skill and awareness is what’s required to work politically—to work out what’s underneath the words, to speak to that value or fear of loss, to show we are willing to give something up ourselves. Yes, it’s often about individual loss but with a sense of what’s to be gained for us all.

Do you want to learn more about how to work politically and engage those with different, diverse and often competing values?

Are these skills that you, your collaboration or your organisation require to get better outcomes for the communities you serve?

Join us for a 2 day Adaptive Leadership for Collaborations and Collective Impact Masterclass in Sydney on 28-29 September.

Registrations closing soon!


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