How to have Conversations that Drive Successful Collaborations

 In Collaboration, Conversations, Innovation

Conversation at its root – con-vers – is “a state of turning with” somebody else in talk rather than turning against them. It’s the difference between really attuning to other people and following the course of conversation or trying to force a talk into an argument or posture of defense.

What if you could finesse the art of conversation to advance your best ideas forward?

It can be easy to think that, as professionals and entrepreneurs, you are single-handedly responsible for every aspect of your project or venture. In many cases that’s true – as business owners, professionals, designers, and business artists, solitude is a necessity to allow you to focus on your goals and solve complex problems.

Conversation, on the other hand, can incite moments of discovery and wonder that can advance your project forward.

How do you best use the power of conversation to engage in meaningful, fruitful collaboration?

The importance of social creativity

Social creativity – the dynamics of how successful, artful collaboration works in the world – has long been studied by psychologists. What we find when we look at John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Steven Spielberg and John Williams, and the Parisien Salons of the 1920’s is that creative collaboration, plus a deep connection with the world around you, offers a combination that can sustain you through the vagaries of a creative project and a creative life.

One of Frans Johannson’s contributions to the field of innovation and creative collaboration is what he calls The Medici Effect. His convincing premise is that during the Italian Renaissance, artists, architects, and poets thrived in part because the Medici family’s funds and social orientation brought figures in seemingly separate fields together.

Yet there is more to fertile collaboration than pushing creatives together and hoping ideas take flight. As Ruth Blatt wrote in a piece for Forbes, more stars do not necessarily translate into better performance. In fact, the assumption that individual talent combined becomes equal or greater to the sum of its parts fails to take into account the losses that come from egos, quirks, overconfidence, sense of entitlement, and the expectation to lead that stars bring to the team. It also overlooks the skills needed to build synergy on a team.

The art of creative conversation

So how best do we connect? How do we contribute optimally in collaboration, for mutual benefit?

Learn to Listen. Have you noticed how difficult it is to get perspective on your vision for your future when you’re just spinning in your own cognitive cog? Good ideas need space to breathe, and a central tenet of collaborative brainstorming is practicing deep, receptive listening.

Setting aside your own expertise and professional ego can stop “Survivor Brain” from negating the positive impact of creative collaboration.

“Survivor Brain” pigeonholes, labels, and writes off when it encounters something that is unfamiliar or threatening to an established way of thinking. If threatened in a competition of ideas, “Survivor Brain” attacks or criticizes in order to dominate. Often without realizing it, these nearly unconscious prejudices can keep you from recognizing the potential value in someone else’s idea.

  • If you hear your “Survivor Brain” whispering insults to you about your potential collaborators, whisper back, “Open up, instead of size up. Open up, instead of size up.”
  • If you hear your own mind racing with what it wants to say next, quiet it by focusing part of your mind on your breath’s rhythms.

Rather than inserting your own knowledge, practice asking “Is there anything else you’d like to explore?”

Imagine the space between you and your collaborator as a continuum of ideas, filled with potential new wonder. It’s up to you to keep that continuum open and fertile with possibility. What may seem, at first, like a completely random idea may give you your next business breakthrough.

Focus on Ideas, not Yourself. I have the good fortune to spend much of my week talking with interesting people working on cool projects, each with their own ideologies and methods. Much of the time in collaboration, I have to remind myself to stay out of the way of my client conversations.

This kind of substantial conversation has also been objectively proven to make you happier. In a study in 2010, psychologist Matthias Mehl and his team used unobtrusive recording technology to “eavesdrop” on conversation patterns. Mehl concluded that happier participants spend 70% more time talking than unhappy participants and that they spend more time having substantial conversations.

The takeaway here is the idea of substantial conversation, rather than small-talk.

Nothing shuts down a good flow conversation that could lead to great ideas better than bragging, self-analyzing, or otherwise redirecting the topic back to yourself.

When you notice your ego begging for attention, step back in your mind and remember the big idea, the project, the creative problem at hand. Let wonder in.

Connect Outside Your Field. Benjamin Jones, a strategy professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has highlighted that a major value in collaboration comes from the fact that our individual knowledge base is becoming more and more specialized. While expertise is integral to your success, it can also limit scope.

What might you learn if you talked outside of your area of knowledge?

Creative habitats thrive on idea-diversity the way environmental habits thrive on eco-diversity. What can you learn from a photographer? A designer? A writer? A textile worker? A therapist?

When Steve Jobs was the CEO at Pixar, he cared so much about creating an environment conducive to conversation that he specifically designed the architecture of the workplace to ensure that unlikely conversations could happen spontaneously. This intentionality about making sure that artists spoke with coders, or musicians spoke to screenwriters or accountants, meant that people could bump into each other in random ways to spark ideas.

What might happen if you reach out to other people who are committed to living creatively?

Take the World as Your Partner. Collaborative conversation is something that can happen with people, or even with the world around you. Step outside of yourself, and you might realize that the physical world is a creative partner and can inspire ideas which prove just as fruitful.

When Australian Muslim Aheda Zanetti paid attention to how uncomfortable it was to wear heavy burqas in Australian waters, she listened to a great question – How could a bikini be combined with a burqa?

The simple act of asking this questions led to the creation of the burqini – a lightweight polyester swimsuit which allows modesty to be preserved whilst still enjoying time in the water.

By being open to the possibilities and the questions – the challenges that the world provided her initial idea, Zanetti managed to lead the way in changing modest dressing for women around the world, and changing the way in which people perceive Muslim women. An idea which seems so simple now was born of asking questions about the world and her place in it.

Most great ideas are not born out of nothing; several great ideas are born out of paying attention and out of opening up to the physical environment around us.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or creative, professional or artist, team leader or team member, executive or manager, no wise woman or man can complete a quest alone.

What conversations have you had recently that have inspired you to see things in a new way?

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