Communicate to Collaborate

Collaboration, that highly touted process by which humans innovate, happens through communication. Bright minds playing off each other generate more ideas and better outcomes. Both the structure and the content of collaboration hinge on effective communication. When communication fails, so does collaboration and instead of innovation, we get conflict and stifled voices.

Collaboration is the process by which interdependent autonomous entities interact to make decisions or take actions to achieve goals for mutual benefit1. Together we set goals, agree on how we will engage with one another, then each contribute expertise and effort to jointly achieve objectives. Collaboration is a generative win-win process where all participants benefit. It is different than cooperation, which is a give-and-take process where you win some and lose some. Both are effective ways to work together, but collaboration takes more effort to generate additional ideas beyond what each individual brings to the table. As such, collaboration require respectful, inclusive, and productive communication. Here are two actions I recommend to get started on positive collaboration experiences:

  1. Be clear about the role of communication as a strategic tool
  2. Use metacommunication to move through the process

Role of Communication

Employ communication as a strategic tool. That means we are intentional about our goals and our methods. For example, we could set the objective that we will generate ideas that no group member has thought of in advance. We can use methods that ensure everyone contributes and we build upon each other’s ideas. Three of my favorite collaboration methods I call capture-first, all-voices, and build-upon.

  • Capture-first allows each participant to think of and articulate ideas for themselves before sharing with the group. Typing into a phone or computer is a good way to capture thoughts and ideas. After this solo process, participants can share with the broader group. This method allows people who think at different speeds and in different patterns to all contribute to the group.
  • All-voices is designed to let every participant fully explain their ideas prior to getting any input from others. It works well to go one by one to each participant without any interruptions so that all ideas can be heard. I recommend that everyone takes their own notes on the ideas shared during this period so that they can react to the ideas when discussion starts.
  • Build-upon encourages positive contributions to other people’s ideas. Instead of looking at ideas with a critical eye, the method encourages looking at the broadest possibilities of each idea, expanding upon the original. Using the phrase “and also” is a way to achieve this. For example, “Having chocolate for breakfast is a great idea and also we may want to combine it with milk for some protein.”

When we acknowledge that communication will make the difference between success and failure in collaboration, we can be more intentional in our goals and focus our attention on effective methods.


Communicating about communicating is metacommunication and it establishes the process for collaboration. Metacommunication can also move the group past obstacles that arise. At the beginning of a collaboration the group communicates to agree upon methods for interactions that determine how ideas are brought forth, discussed, and evaluated – this is metacommunication. The methods stated above are good examples of what might be agreed upon. As the collaboration progresses, metacommunication can be used when the group gets stuck. Perhaps disagreements arise, people break the positive generative cycle, or they devolve into raised voices and not listening respectfully. At that point we could use metacommunication and say, “Since our communication is not happening the way we intended, let’s take a break and then revisit our original intentions before we restart.”

Collaboration is key to success in business and life. As the proverb states, “If you want to fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” It is worth our effort to learn the communication skills that make collaboration possible. We can start by acknowledging the role of communication as a strategic tool and by employing metacommunication.

  1. Ann Marie Thomson, James L. Perry, Theodore K. Miller, Conceptualizing and Measuring Collaboration,Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2009, Pages 23–56,