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The Gift of Collaboration

Sometimes the gifts of collaboration are tangible, like this sweet birthday gift from TISSU

Sewing Studio owner Nina Winter. Love all the uses for the chopsticks she included. (For food, sewing, a bookmark, a weapon!)

When I started planning the Finishing School for Modern Women I knew I was going to need help to achieve my mission of helping women gain the skills they need to claim their power and live happier, more successful lives. From the beginning, I knew collaboration with people who had expertise in areas I didn’t, would give our students more power through the knowledge that came from the community and shared experiences. Besides, it’s hard to come up with all the ideas on my own, and I wouldn’t want to even if I could.

Collaboration inspires me. When things click with a creative partner, energy builds, and everything flows smoothly with brilliant ideas coming from seemingly nowhere. It’s exciting to see where the class ends up, often in a completely different direction than what I had first envisioned. I love it when the conversation gives me goosebumps, which has long been one of my body’s ways to let me know when an idea is fantastic.

Collaboration helps me broaden my worldview. By genuinely listening to other’s ideas and points of view, it has helped me gain more empathy and understanding. Since I’ve chosen not to be a parent, I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what it must feel like to raise children. Collaborating with Dr. Natalie Grant on the Parenting in the 21st Century class helped me understand the reality of “mommy guilt.” She also taught me about the strengths-based perspective of parenting, which nurtures natural strengths instead of thinking we must be good at everything. That lesson has helped me personally and professionally, long outliving the collaborative experience.

Collaboration is challenging. Being good at this skill demands excellence in communication, relationship-building, and other unglamorous management techniques. It takes leaving your ego at the door, realizing that your ideas aren’t the only good ones and that listening and learning from each other to make the outcome stronger is the sole object of the game. Taking in other’s points of view doesn’t make your ideas weaker or make you less in any way. Building ideas together makes everyone stronger. It also takes a great deal of respect, in others and their opinions, but also for yourself and the expertise and strengths you bring to the relationship.

Of course, not all collaborations work out well. It’s hard. Over the past 4 and a half years, most of my experiences have been good, but there have also been some real doozies. Not everyone is good at collaboration, and sometimes partnerships just don’t click. It doesn’t mean anyone was “bad” or did anything “wrong,” it just means we weren’t a good fit. From these painful experiences, I’ve learned how important it is to be adaptive to differences in personalities and how to foster better cooperative relationships.

Pick your partners wisely.

Before even getting started in any partnership it’s important to get to know each other first. It’s so much easier to work with people you like and respect on projects, it’s worth taking some time to build a relationship before even deciding to work together. It’s important to know if your philosophies are in alignment and if you can agree on the outcome and priorities of the project before you commit to working together.

For me, I have to know our hearts are in the same place. In my partners, I look for unheard voices and unsung heroes to work with and support that are humbly doing their thing to strengthen our community. The ones that give credit where credit is due, recognizing the people that helped get them there, and being more concerned about how to make the world a better place than how much it will benefit them personally.

Define the relationship.

Before getting started, take some time to talk about the relationship. Reach an agreement on how you’ll work together, how you’ll communicate and share files, what your goals are, and who will be in charge of what. It’s also a good idea to set and communicate some boundaries around what you can and can’t be flexible about. These could be about how much time to spend on the project, how long the project will last, or what you are and aren’t willing to do. Don’t just talk about it either. Put it in writing, so everyone knows what is expected, to help avoid a lot of heartaches later. The effort is worth every minute.

Communication is key.

So many of the problems people have with each other could be solved through better communications, especially when we outlined how the relationship will work in advance. Still, feelings can get unintentionally hurt, people don’t always stay in their lane, and sometimes life changes happen. Just talk about it!

It’s always important to remember that because we learned most of our coping skills when we were children, so we’re all still children in our heads. Shaming and being critical of others – and ourselves – is not constructive.

Be accountable.

Always be sure to do what you say you’re going to do. There’s nothing worse than breaking that. Sure, it happens to everyone that we get overcommitted and some plates crash to the floor, but if it happens too often, that’s the reputation you get. Keep communication open. If you’re not going to make a deadline, let the group know in advance. Send up a flair – ask for help — there’s nothing wrong with that.

Be aware of what could go sideways.

Teaching at Wichita State University and being involved in volunteer organizations has taught me a lot about how group projects get sabotaged, usually by people with the best intentions. Some people will pick up the slack for everyone else, maybe because they think they’re the only ones that can do things right, so they take on too many tasks. Sometimes they end up resenting having to do everything or being unable to complete everything they’ve agreed to do. Happy that someone has agreed to do too much, other people contribute little more than advice or criticism, constructive or not, avoiding being committed to the project they took on but thinking they are. Then there are ones that aren’t happy with the direction the project is taking, and perhaps never could be, so they either check out entirely or stick around to shoot everything down. Does this ring any bells? It does for me! It doesn’t have to work this way.

When collaboration does work well, it is a gift.

While I’ve had some challenging, learning experiences, I’ve had even more magical, life-changing experiences. I’ve forged many life-long friendships with women I’ve collaborated with in projects big and small. It’s become my favorite way to get to know people better, and community work has become a big part of how I socialize. I get to see how people act under pressure, live up to their commitments, how they give and take in relationships, and what kind of person they are.

I’m collaborating on a project right now that I’m very excited about. Nina Winter of TISSU Sewing Studio reached out to me earlier this year to work with her on a fashion show of designs sewn by any local creators that want to enter to celebrate diversity, creativity, and beauty in all shapes, colors, and sizes. This Vibration Fashion Show happens on Saturday, June 8 from 1 until 3 PM at TISSU Sewing Studio, 2326 E. Douglas and is a fundraiser for Camp Destination Innovation.

This collaboration has been magical. Working with Nina and getting to know her better has been a joy. She’s so easy to work with and talk to. I must admit I’ll be a bit disappointed when we don’t have an excuse to meet. I stopped by to touch base yesterday, and when I left, she surprised me with a birthday gift that delighted and moved me. Even when our project is done, I know I have gained a life-long friend from this experience.

The gifts of collaboration are plentiful, when we approach it this way, coming together to create something bigger than we could ever do on our own. Rather than looking at group projects as something to be dreaded, we can see it as a way to build relationships to strengthen the community. That is the best gift of collaboration.

What will you do to be a better collaborator?

Headmistress Jill

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