Collaborative Communication Agreements

Is communicating with your team like herding cats? Are your allies acting more like adversaries? Are partners more APART than a PART of initiatives? If so, you’re in the right place. Read on.

An invitation to get in or get out

Collabra CadabraI loved working with “Amy”, but in recent months she had gone from being actively involved to dialing it in. I got the sense that she was checking off a to-do list to meet minimum requirements and wasn’t engaged anymore. Her personal life had gotten chaotic, and she had checked out on me.

I ask everyone who works with me for a 24-hour response time. I ask them to either respond to my questions and task requests within 24 hours or tell me when they will be able to. When I reminded Amy of that, she told me she couldn’t commit to it anymore. I like partnering with people I hire, and she had become more APART than a PART of my business. We decided to go our separate ways. I invited her to let me know if things changed and she was able and willing to be more engaged in her work with me.

Married but Not Engaged: A part of, not apart from, a partnership

I was thinking about Amy after speaking with a family friend who said he wanted to get a divorce. I suggested he try getting married first. Yes, he and his wife have been legally married for over 30 years. But he never sounded fully engaged to me. His marriage sounded like one more thing on his endless to-do list. I’d like to see him get fully in the game before he decides it isn’t working and gets out.

Business and personal partnerships are about being a PART of a greater whole. When partners are more APART than a PART, it’s time to get yourself and others in (or out of) the game. Collaborative communication agreements can’t fix every partnership and team problem – but they can work collaborative magic if they are handled well.

Collaborative Communication Agreements

There are two ways to use collaborative communication agreements.

You can ask for agreements as situations arise. For example, you can say, “Before you analyze my presentation for its weaknesses, can you tell me what you like about it? I’ll do the same when I give you feedback.” You can say, “It seems like the conversation has gotten adversarial, when we’re on the same team. Can you help me figure out how we can get back to being allies here?”

Or you can have formal meetings with individuals or groups to define the kind of communication culture you want, and what agreements will help you get there. Here are some steps.

Invite people to meet to create a vision of the kind of communication culture the team wants to create. Ask them to prepare two ways.

  1. By thinking of their top three communication pet peeves. For example: When you ask three questions and get an answer to one. When staff asks questions you just answered. When managers note minor errors and don’t acknowledge the overall excellence of a project.
  2. By thinking of three ways colleagues communicate what they like. I could go on for hours about how my assistant Angela communicates with me. How she balances being a cheerleader with giving me honest feedback. How she updates me on her availability. How she clarifies before taking action. Have each participant list what they like.
  3. Begin the meeting with a vision of the purpose. Say something like, “by the end of this meeting, I’d like for us to have concrete standards of communication that we all contributed to that will increase our efficiency, remove our frustrations and engage us all in creating a collaborative communication culture.”
  4. Start with the pet peeves. Avoid personalizing them. “Joe” might be the one that reminds you that you don’t like being around sarcasm, but Joe isn’t your peeve, sarcasm is.
  5. If the pet peeve discussion is lighthearted, keep it going until it’s complete. If you sense hostility, apply step F for each pet peeve before you move to the next.
  6. List communication qualities each person admires. You can get personal here – unless you’re concerned about one person coming across as the pillar of perfection and the rest like schmucks.
  7. Vote on the priorities of the pet peeves. Then, take them one by one and ask – what do you want to happen instead? What concrete steps can we put in place to make that happen?
  8. Create a list of agreements. If anyone isn’t sure they can commit to one, ask what they can commit to. For example, if “Nina” isn’t sure she can meet a 24-hour response time when she’s travelling, what can she do?
  9. Formalize your agreements. Distribute and have people sign.
  10. Arrange a follow-up meeting in two weeks to see what’s working, what isn’t, and how you want to adjust the agreements.

Collabra cadabra: work your own collaborative communication magic

Collaborative communication is foreign to many who have worked in competitive and adversarial environments. Many of us have done business with people who used the win-win language to mask their win-lose agenda.  It’s natural for people to distrust attempts to change habits and cultures and to distrust when trust has been betrayed in the past. Trust must be won. These agreements can work magic – but that magic can take time. Still, staying committed to finding collaborative communication agreements that really work for everyone can get people in the game. Or out of it if when all is said and done, they really don’t belong.

Meryl Runion Rose can facilitate a communication agreement process in house or over the web. Call 719-684-2633.

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