Relationships, Part 28: Collaboration

CavemenWe could accomplish so much more together than we ever can individually, but often we don’t. Alliances fall apart.
At the heart of every productive human connection is collaboration: an implicit or explicit agreement to cooperate with one another and work towards shared goals. Collaboration is found in all human relationships: sports teams, work groups, orchestras, between parent and child, therapist and client, between spouses, between any two people having a conversation; wherever people come together for a purpose.
If you pay attention to what’s going on between you and the other person in the course of a conversation, you will find that sometimes you and your associate appear to be on the same page and engaged with one another. At other times, one of you stops paying attention, seems to be changing the subject, or is working against the other. You are seeing two people pass in and out of collaboration.
Collaboration comes and goes that easily. No relationship maintains it constantly, but when you generally have one, you say that you have a good relationship and can trust your partner.
We’re very good at scanning the other person with whom we are working, and can pick up pretty easily the moment the alliance is broken. It’s easy to see why we evolved this capability. If we are cave men hunting a saber-toothed tiger, I need to know the moment when you cut and run when we have it cornered with our spears. In fact our whole ability to work together depends on my ability to pick up on subtle non-verbal cues that alert me to the state of our collaboration.
We’re not so good at reading our own non-verbal cues, the unspoken messages we send out to the other. We’re usually paying attention to our own thoughts. I don’t have to monitor the expression on my own face as I am hunting the saber-toothed tiger; I know what I intend to do. I’m shitting my loin cloth; but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to drop my spear and leave my buddy behind.
The trouble is, my hunting buddy doesn’t know what I’m thinking. All he has to go on is the terrified look on my face. Then, when I take a half-step away from the saber-toothed tiger, maybe to get a secure footing before I plunge my spear into the beast, he figures I’m going to take off. He reads that I’m going to break our collaboration, so he runs and leaves me there.
(Two cave men are running from a saber-toothed tiger. One says to the other. You don’t really think we can outrun him, do you? The other says, I don’t have to outrun the saber-toothed tiger. I just have to outrun you. They have broken their collaboration.)
Whether we are hunting saber-toothed tigers or arranging who gets up with the baby at 3 am, collaborations end when one party thinks the other is abandoning it or acting in bad faith. They often end before they need to because, at the first perceived sign of trouble, people get nervous about being betrayed.
Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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