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  • Writer's pictureKelvin Ng

Book Review: Collaborating with the Enemy

Updated: May 17, 2022

Collaborating with the Enemy – How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, by Adam Kahane

This is a very simple book in terms of its length (slightly over a hundred pages) and how it is structured.

However, it carries a lot of weight in the area of collaboration given Adam’s experience in facilitating collaborative discussions at Mont Fleur, South Africa, during the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy, for Destino Colombia, in an effort to help Colombians find a way out of their conflict, and many other regional, national-wide and international projects.

Those discussions are very challenging as they involve highly diverse participants, people from across different social, political, cultural, ideological sectors, and cover exceptional high stakes for those inside and outside of the discussions.

Even though those experiences forms a major part of the author’s experience, but, I think, his insights shared in this book applies to our daily life as well, in the area of people management, project management, business negotiation, marriage, parenting, etc.

The Enemyfying Syndrome

The title of the book refers the Enemyfying Syndrome that the author has observed. It is about our tendency to think and act as if the people we are dealing with are our enemies – people who are the cause of our problem and are hurting us. Hence, they are to be destroyed.

Enemyfying is seductive because it reassures us that we are okay and not responsible for the difficulties we are facing. And, it also, with the aim to make things clearer for us, simplifies things into black and white.

However, it usually obscures rather than clarifies the reality of the challenge, and it narrows the space for problem-sovling and creativity.

This syndrome, or this tendency to crush the other side, is at the heart of the challenge of collaboration.

Collaboration is not the only option!

Adam uses the below decision tree to illustrate that collaboration is not the only option.

Forcing is natural and habitual for many people. They believe that in most situations, forcing is the best way to effect change. Collaboration only means capitulation.

We may not want to collaborate, but we need to. As there are a lot of circumstances under which we cannot alone know what needs to be done or, even if we know, we cannot alone succeed in getting it done.

Constricted Collaboration Vs Stretch Collaboration

However, we cannot collaborate in the conventional, constricted way, which assumes “we can control the focus, the goal, the plan to reach this goal, and what each person must do to implement this plan.”

The conventional collaboration believes that there is one right answer. It emphasizes the good of the team as a whole and the harmony of the team at the expense of the interests of the individuals.

Adam asserts that this kind of collaboration does not work in complex and uncontrolled situations. In order to find ‘a way to move forward without being in control’, we need to make three stretches.

The first stretch is to embrace conflict and connection.

In a simple situation, the interests and perspectives of different people can be made to be congruent easily. So, emphasizing harmony and unity (connection) works well.

However, in a complex and uncontrolled situation, focusing on unity only will suffocate the system as there is more than one whole.

We need to understand that an individual is a whole in oneself; which is part of a team, which is a whole in itself; which is part of an organization, which is a whole; which is part of a sector; and so on.

We need to take care of the interests of every individual and whole in managing the dynamics of collaboration in a complex situation. And, Adam uses Power and Love to denote the two drives of each individual or whole.

Power is defined as the drive of everything living to realise itself, and is manifested in the behaviour of asserting. While, Love is defined as the drive towards the unity of the separated, and is manifested in the behaviours of engaging.

We need to use, or allow, asserting (conflict) and engaging (connection) alternatively. It is just like inhaling and exhaling. We must both inhale and exhale to keep our system alive.

Adam quotes the following statement made by Martin Luther King Jr. to summarize the need to manage this polarity in the first stretch.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Most of us are feel more comfortable using one style and underestimate the usefulness of the other side. We need to stretch to employ our weak pole so as to strengthen it.

It is also a stretch as we need to be courageous enough to make the countervailing move when it is required. For example, when the system is dominated by engaging (emphasizing on unity and the overall purpose) to the point of suffocating, we need to begin asserting (taking care of individual interests & needs).

As a negotiation strategist/ trainer, I work with clients to expand their flexibility to employ different negotiation styles along the spectrum from competitive to cooperation. The concept is very similar, and it applies to a lot of situations.

The second stretch is to experiment a way forward.

It is about engaging others in dialoguing on what could happen, instead of what would or what should happen, so as to shift the conversation from a usual rigid one about whose is right to an unusual fluid one about what was possible.

In a simple situation, people move forward by agreeing on the problem, the solution, and the execution plan, and then take actions. However, in a complex, diverse and uncontrollable situation, we need to experiment a way forward.

“In stretch collaboration, we cocreate our way forward. We cannot know our route before we set out; we cannot predict or control it: we can only discover it along the way. Working in this manner can be both exciting and unnerving.”

Adam Kahane

As an example of such situation, Adam shares his experience in facilitating meetings of 46 leaders from across all the countries of the Americas and the sectors involved in drug policy to discuss alternative futures where governments departed radically from the war on drug strategy, the single strategy they have used for forty years, in order to identify new ways forward.

The rigidity of thinking and mutual mistrust was very high in that situation. Making an agreement was a challenging.

In fact, it is not about making an agreement once and for all. It is an ongoing and emerging process in which it is more important to act than to agree. Success in collaborating does not mean that the participants agree with or like one another. It means that they are able to get unstuck and take a next step forward.

In stretch collaboration, people realize emergent strategy by experimenting. They try out ideas that they think might work and then learn from the results.

Adam connects this idea with Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, the movement from sensing to presencing (seeing what one is noticing here and now) to co-creating (bring forth something new that does not yet exist) that does not follow a straight and direct route.

This process requires us to bear with the uncertainty and the still-inadequate & still-incomplete current results, and feel our way forward.

This situation requires us to stop downloading (saying what one always say) and debating as this will only re-enact existing realities. Instead, to co-create new realities, we need to suspend our judgments, be present and engaged, and listen for possibilities.

The third stretch is to step into the game.

“If we want to get important things done in complex situations, then we can’t spend our time just watching and blaming and cajoling others. We have to step in.”

Adam Kahane

Stepping in about acknowledging that we are part of the system, we are part of the problem, and we are part of the solution.

When people engage others in discussion in order to change a problematic situation, a lot of the times, they come with the conventional attitude of thinking about how to change what others are doing. “They are the problem, and they need to change!”

In my experience as a facilitator, most managers, who come to me for development interventions to shift the culture of the team or the organization, come with this same attitude. “Kelvin, how can we get them to …?”

For them, changing the culture means changing what their staff are doing. It never occurs to them that it may be beneficial for them and the team if they could make use of the intervention to hear feedback from the staff on how their actions and behaviours have reinforced the current culture and what they need to do differently.

Instead of focusing on getting the others to change, we shift our focus onto what we ourselves are doing, how we are contributing to things being the ways they are and what we need to do differently to change the way thing are.

Adam uses the following metaphor to illustrate the difference.

There are two ways in which we can understand our relationship to and role in a given situation.

One way is to see our role as ‘the director of a play’, instructing the actors on the stage as a super-creator of the play, or as ‘a spectator’, watching the play. In both cases, we see ourselves being apart from and outside of the situation.

The other way is to see our role as ‘an actor’, being one of the co-creator of the play. We see ourselves as part of and within the situation.

“Unless we can grasp how what we are doing is contributing to our situation, we will have no way to change that situation, except from above, by forcing.”

Adam Kahane

Seeing ourselves as a co-creator help us to re-gain our agency and the opportunity to effect change. It offers us a more balance view of the situation as well.

Adam also warn us not to unbalance ourselves in the opposite way, by seeing ourselves as the ‘center of the world’, overestimating the correctness of our own perspective and underestimate those of others.

Adam uses what Tai Chi teacher Wolfe Lowenthal says about the martial art of push hands to summarize the essence of stretch collaboration.

“No matter how hard and unyielding your opponent, our inability to deal gently with him is indicative of our own stuckness. It is the exploration and eventual dissolving of the stuckness – not winning – that is the point of push hands.”

In this complex and diverse world, we could see a lot of stuckness in our system, such as in our discussions on environmental protection, on cross-generation difference, etc.

Let’s work together to co-create new realities.

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