Individual Leadership Tools
As should be clear by now, we believe that collaborative governance requires a rigorous approach to (1) the definitional norms of collaborative governance; (2) the fundamental dynamics of collaboration; (3) the assessment, design, and structure of the process; and (4) the particularities of group interactions. In this chapter, we focus on what individual members of a collaborative group can do to provide leadership and make collaborative governance more productive and rewarding.
There are many definitions of leadership. In a collaborative governance setting, we define leadership as taking actions that help enable the group to succeed in its task, regardless of one’s own interests. Helping a group to take a more productive course requires paying attention to both the task and the process, to think about what the group needs at any given moment to move it forward. Under this definition, leadership is not relegated to those at the head of the table or associated with any particular role, title, or position of power. Nor is leadership confined to one particular person. Every participant in a collaborative governance process has the potential, and indeed the responsibility, to provide leadership at certain times, in other words, to look for opportunities and act in ways that help the group succeed in its task.
We provide below ten practical leadership tools any member of a collaborative governance process can use to make their group more successful. Used strategically, these tools can help build trust and collaborative relationships, ensure more authentic and productive conversations, and lead to agreements or outcomes that serve the interests of all the participants.
Leadership Tool 1: Collaborative Listening
Effective collaborative governance requires a certain quality of listening. We use the term collaborative listening to mean listening with the intent to understand the other parties. More specifically, it is listening for information that enables the listener to analyze the collaborative landscape and connect the dots. This includes being alert to mutual affiliations, for example, which may help build more trusting and productive relationships. It means picking up on subtle cues from other parties that might indicate how much they value the program or project in question and listening to understand what they want or need from the process.
Collaborative listening is often the only way to discern the information necessary for successful collaboration. In agreement-seeking projects, for example, it enables the listener to discern underlying interests from stated positions, identifying what is valued most, and where interests may overlap. It can illuminate where there is high potential for agreement and the avenues for getting there. As Roger Fisher and Scott Brown nicely summarize, “You can’t solve differences without understanding them” (65).
However, it is not just about having the skill, but also the intent to understand that is important. Too often we may listen to someone while simultaneously constructing a rebuttal in our heads or impatiently awaiting our turn to express our thoughts. But to truly capture the value of listening in a collaborative situation, one needs to suspend judgment, at least momentarily, and engage in what others have called “active listening” or “empathetic listening” (Covey 239), trying to see things for a moment from others’ point of view. We call this “collaborative listening” when it involves being alert for the type of information critical to collaborative success.
Collaborative listening involves giving the speaker complete attention, that is, not checking a cell phone for messages or interrupting to give one’s own point of view. It is not, however, just about being undistracted and silent while others talk. It involves asking clarifying questions (as opposed to those designed to challenge) to make sure the listener fully understands. And it involves listeners communicating their understanding back to speakers occasionally, not only to ensure that messages were properly understood, but also to let speakers know they’ve been heard. It may also involve following up later to either ask further clarifying questions or to assure speakers that their concerns were heard and considered.
Collaborative listening requires listening across differences, be they political, racial, economic, gender-related, or some other difference, while at the same time listening for commonalities. The critical information gained can surely aid the collaboration, but almost as important as what listeners learn is what they communicate by truly listening. Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro identify the need to be appreciated and valued as one of the core needs in human relationships. Biological research shows that when someone feels appreciated and valued there is a measurable physical response, a reduction in the secretion of stress hormones and shifts in the neuro-endocrine system (McCraty and Childre 247).
When a person truly listens to another, with the intent to understand them better, they are effectively saying that the other person’s perspective is important, directly feeding that basic human need identified by Fisher and Shapiro. This is true regardless of whether or not the listener agrees with the speaker. This kind of deep listening also communicates a willingness to be vulnerable. To really listen implies that the listener is open to new information. This act of vulnerability is correctly interpreted by others as a sign of self-confidence and trust. And it engenders trust in return. People are far more likely to listen to someone if they first feel that they have been truly heard.
Real listening is powerful in part because it is all too rare, even in collaborative governance processes. Remarkably, this can be especially true for agreementseeking groups trying to work through disagreements. These conversations can easily devolve into a debate where all parties are simply lobbing arguments at each other. Collaborative listening can have a powerful effect because it has the potential to change the entire tenor of a conversation.
A former member of the governor’s staff in Oregon tells the story of once receiving a phone call from a woman who was upset at her local city council. The caller had a number of complaints about the direction of the city and the council’s unwillingness to take her concerns seriously. She went on, quite heatedly, for about twenty-five minutes, at which point the governor’s staff person summed up the essence of her grievance, “You really don’t trust these people to look out for the city’s interests.” There was silence on the other end, a long pause. Then, in a much calmer tone the caller said, “Why, yes, that’s exactly right. You understand!” The conversation lasted only another minute or two, at which point she thanked him for listening and hung up. That the governor’s staff person did not necessarily agree with the caller was beside the point. The caller was just grateful to be heard.
Collaborative listening cannot be faked. If a person tries to employ a listening technique on someone without really trying to understand, the insincerity will become apparent to the speaker in seconds, actually creating greater distrust. This is in part because our emotional and relationship messages are primarily communicated nonverbally through visual and auditory cues such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice (Mehrabian and Ferris 251). People know whether someone is really listening to them or not.
In our teaching, we sometimes utilize an exercise where the group breaks into pairs and each person shares with their partner their own experience of a particular concept. The pairs are given a limited amount of time to do this and then asked to individually rate the quality of the conversation on a scale from one to ten. They then hear a presentation on the value of listening, including what one can learn and what one communicates by listening. After the presentation, we have the same pairs discuss a different question or concept, followed by their rating of that conversation. The second conversation almost universally receives a higher average rating than the first, often by a significant amount. Simply by listening better and more intentionally, the participants come to realize, they have the power to improve the quality of their collaborative conversations.