Collaboration as a skill
At a fundamental level, collaboration is a form of interaction. As with any other interaction between humans, the quality of collaboration is largely predicated on the participants’ ability to interact in a variety of different dimensions. Over the following lines, we will examine this ability to collaborate and break it down into individual skills that make up the collaborative ability.
Is collaboration a skill?
It doesn’t require advanced research skills to find many examples of collaboration being referred to as a skill in scholarly literature. In fact, many publications dedicated to contemporary education highlight collaboration as one of the essential skills for the 21st century.
However, if we dig a little bit deeper, the “skill” of collaboration is never defined as a distinctive quality, but always as a combination of other skills identified as relevant to the process of collaboration. In many literary sources, the discourse shifts quickly from “the skill of collaboration” to a set of “collaboration skills”.
Therefore, strictly speaking, it is difficult to identify collaboration as a skill in itself. Instead, we can observe a collaborative skillset – a combination of different skills related to communication, emotional intelligence, and operational know-how. The aggregation of these skills enables us to collaborate well with others.
We will dedicate the following lines to detailing relevant skills in the areas of communication and emotional intelligence.
Communication skills relevant for collaboration
Healthy communication practices are the essence of any relationship, including a collaborative one. Quality communication fuels collaboration by ensuring a high degree of clarity, understanding, and consensus among team members, as well as preventing or de-escalating any conflicts.
The essential communication skills, as identified by a number of authors, are:
- Asking open-ended questions
- Asking closed questions
- Using facilitators
- Assessing non-verbals
The act of listening is the foundation of healthy communication. While it may seem self-explanatory, it is surprising how often we slip up on this first step in communication. Just think back to a situation where you felt like a team member was distracted while you were speaking, or that they were already focusing on their response instead of what you were saying. Perhaps you can even think of situations where you have failed to listen fully and attentively.
In order to ensure that we are getting this first basic step right, we can rely on the five principles of active listening:
- Pay attention – focus on what’s being said, make eye contact, and avoid surrounding distractions
- Show that you are listening – utilize your body language by nodding, making appropriate facial expressions, holding an open posture, etc.
- Provide feedback – clarify any points your teammate makes and summarize what’s been said in order to ensure understanding
- Defer judgment – allow your teammates to complete their points and don’t provide counter-arguments before they are finished
- Respond appropriately – respond with openness, honesty, and respect
Asking open-ended questions
Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a “ yes” or “no”. Their importance lies in the requirements placed before the responder, asking to provide a response that’s more substantial than a mere one-word confirmation or negation. They should create room for a broad range of responses and information, thus encouraging a deeper and more meaningful interaction.
Asking closed questions
As much as open-ended questions spur the conversation, closed questions (answered by a simple “yes” or “no”) are essential for team consensus and the necessary degree of certainty. Normally, in real-life situations, conversations include a combination of open-ended and closed questions, where the latter provide concrete information and the former expand on it.
A form of an open-ended question, a clarifying question serves to provide more details on what’s already been said and remove uncertainty from the conversation. Clarifying questions serve several purposes, as they show the other person that we are actively listening, provide additional information and ensure a greater degree of clarity and understanding between team members.
Paraphrasing represents our interpretation of what was said to us. By formulating our understanding of the meaning of what’s being said, we allow the other party to elaborate on that meaning. Like clarifying questions, paraphrasing serves multiple purposes, as it, again, shows that we are actively listening, ensures that our interpretation of the communication is correct, and enables the other party to expand on the discussion. We can observe paraphrasing as a check-up, a way for us to be sure that we fully understand what’s being said.
Facilitators are common phrases and gestures that encourage the continuation of a conversation. They include actions such as smiling or nodding, as well as phrases and short questions such as “aha”, or “how so?”. Facilitators don’t direct the conversation in any specific direction, instead serving to prolong the discussion and exchange of information. Additionally, they can serve to re-focus the other party on the conversation itself.
Our ability to assess non-verbal messages is one of the key skills for quality communication. Non-verbals represent a big part of the totality of communication. Posture, gestures, facial expressions, and other forms of non-verbal communication all provide additional information to the conversation, from the participants’ emotional relationship to what’s being said, their general emotional state, as well as their degree of confidence or certainty, or even honesty. Non-verbals provide additional clarity and context to verbally communicated messages.
At a first glance, silence may seem like the absence of communication, but it can serve as an effective communication tool. Short silent pauses in a conversation can communicate a variety of information, from encouraging the other party to continue the conversation to showing deep consideration for what’s being said, express disagreement, and beyond. As silence can be interpreted differently by the other party, it should be employed selectively and, if needed, accompanied by eye contact or other non-verbal gestures in order to provide clarity.
We also must address the specific aspects of communication in a remote setting. As remote communication eliminates a number of factors present in a physical workspace (most notably non-verbals), the absence of these factors needs to be addressed. Most importantly, the communication on remote teams needs to be established on the principles of clarity and simplicity, in order to ensure understanding and minimize ambiguity. Another relevant aspect of remote communication is knowledge-sharing, which cannot take place in a more immediate and spontaneous manner present in a traditional office space. Remote teams need a more structured process of knowledge sharing with a high degree of transparency and access to all relevant information and resources.
To learn more about the relevance of communication for the collaborative process, visit our Team Communication Hub.
Emotional intelligence competencies relevant for collaboration
Our ability to manage our emotions and the emotions of others plays an important role in the success of a collaboration. This ability, contained within the umbrella term of “emotional intelligence”, consists of a broad variety of interpersonal skills relevant to human interactions. The concept of emotional intelligence has been popularized in the 1990s by author Daniel Goleman, involves five basic competencies:
- Self-awareness: our understanding of our own emotional states, as well as our understanding of how we are perceived by others.
- Self-management: our ability to control our emotional states and react to them in a deliberate manner, as opposed to acting on impulse.
- Motivation: our degree of emotional involvement and investment into the work and the success of the team.
- Social awareness: our ability to properly interpret the emotional states of others and act accordingly, with the full understanding of and respect for any individual differences.
- Social skills: our ability to build and manage interpersonal relationships, empathy put into action.
Author Stephen Xavier has reinterpreted Golman’s competencies in the context of a professional team, recognizing four clusters of emotional intelligence competencies relevant to team dynamics. Let’s take a look at each of them.
The degree of our understanding of our emotions and of the perception of our actions by others greatly determine our ability to collaborate. According to Xavier, the “self-awareness cluster” includes three components:
- Emotional self-awareness – recognizing our emotions and their effects on us and others
- Accurate self-assessment – our understanding of our strengths, weaknesses, and limitations
- Self-confidence – having a strong sense of one’s self-worth and abilities
An adequate degree of self-awareness enables team members to understand their weaknesses and admit to them freely, handle constructive criticism in a positive manner, and recognize how their emotions affect the collaborative process.
Stephen Xavier identifies the following components of the “self-management cluster”:
- Adaptability – the ability to properly respond to changing circumstances
- Emotional self-control – inhibiting emotions that are in contrast to organizational norms
- Initiative – taking a proactive approach, the so-called “can-do” attitude
- Achievement orientation – desire to do better and to help others reach their full potential
- Trustworthiness – consistency and integrity of our emotions and actions
- Optimism – an active expression of a positive view of life and future
The totality of our self-management skills greatly impacts our interpersonal relationships, and thus the collaborative process as a whole.
This area of emotional intelligence focuses on our understanding of the emotions and actions of others. Xavier identifies the following components of the “social awareness cluster”:
- Empathy – understanding of other team members and taking an active interest in their concerns
- Service orientation – recognizing and meeting the needs of others
- Organizational awareness – establishing meaningful relationships with customers, within work teams, and the organization pursuing a common goal.
Our ability to understand the emotions and the motivations of other team members can help navigate the complex waters of professional relationships. Emotionally intelligent team members can view a situation from the perspective of others, thus improving camaraderie and trust on a team level.
Relationship management represents social awareness turned into action. It includes a number of competencies that can have a positive effect on team relationships and the collaboration itself. Xavier identifies the following components of the “relationship management cluster”:
- Inspiration – inspiring and guiding behavior, providing a role model for desirable behavior – both professionally and emotionally
- Development of others – helping others improve their performance and reach their highest potentials
- Change catalyst – initiating and managing change. Having a positive attitude inclusive of the impact change has on others
- Conflict management – resolving disagreements, negotiating, facilitating compromise, and seeking the best alternatives for the team
- Influence – the ability to get others to agree with you while avoiding any autocratic behavior. Teamwork and cooperation – building relationships with a shared vision and synergy.
Collaboration is not a skill in itself, but it involves a broad and diverse set of skills and competencies individual team members bring to the table. Our understanding of these skills and their impact on the collaborative process will shape the nature and the success of the collaboration.
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