By Dorinda Fox
This following is what I tell students about conflict and collaboration both in academia and the workplace. I tell them this in person for f2f lecture, as well as as part of a much longer lecture in online courses.
Experienced writers and communicators always communicate. They show work to peers in early stages, bounce work off colleagues when they have completed drafts, have lovers read a completed draft to get an opinion “outside the field”, and take criticism from editors and reviewers. Not only do experienced communicators share their writing with others; they also share ideas. They share their ideas in two ways: first by reading the work of others, and second by joining an intellectual community. You will notice that I use the word “collaborate” and not “cooperate.” This is because while collaboration is almost always valuable — it is rarely always pleasant or smooth. Sometimes collaboration is downright nasty and unsettling.
Learning to collaborate well may be difficult, but it is an important skill for anyone hoping to work for a living or to well just live. A friend who once worked as an executive at Time Warner noted:
A big positive of learning to write through discussions and work groups is that is much better prepares the student for the work world. You have to learn how to deal with “difficult” people, the people who don’t pull their own weight and the general conflicts that arise during problem solving. This seems difficult when you are trying to prepare a project or pass a class. However, it is not nearly as difficult as when you are trying to complete the projects related to your job. In that case, you will deal with difficult people, people trying to steal your job, people with conflicting agendas, people who will try to take all the credit for a job well done, and upper management that might be clueless. A big part of getting ahead in the workplace is learning to navigate through all of this.
Rev. Don Williams, the Director of Goodwill Industries-Manisota, supports my friend’s beliefs when he explains to a Florida Trend interviewer,
We are basically fed a bunch of lies when we are children. Number one, that there’s such a thing as a right answer. The second is that there is such a thing as 100%. The third thing is that it is cheating to collaborate. You get out and you find that there are very few right answers; there’s a bunch of gray. There is no 100%; if you are lucky you make 51?% or 52% in life and you’re doing good. And number three, the best way to live life is to collaborate; to look over each others’ shoulders, and to steal generously from each other. And we wonder why our children are so confused.
That is what I tell my students after carefully recounting my experience working with the mediation services unit administered by the Florida Supreme Court. That is me the teacher talking.
From My Knocking Knees and the Pit of My Stomach
I spent the last four days either at orientation at the university my oldest daughter will attend in the Fall or in another Florida city (conveniently near a beach ;0)) where my oldest daughter met her new roommate. As a graduation present I had offered to pay for the decorating of her dorm room by my daughter and her roommate. This was a grand plan until I learned my oldest daughter’s stepmother, as well as the roommate’s mother also wanted to assist/advise on this project. The new roommates had more advice from others about what do to do with their room than they could handle. Collaboration did not look like an option. Instead there was conflict—both emotional and perhaps armed— around the corner.
Luckily, my two daughters and I stayed in a hotel by the beach with my best friend Jen and her daughter, who is the same age as my youngest. We were taking advantage of the long Memorial Day weekend. Jen serves as my daughters’ aunt, and in many cases in my life as the mediator who keeps me from messing up more than necessary. Apparently over dinner, when I was off with the two youngest children making Disney campfire s’mores by the sea (thoroughly enjoying setting marshmallows on fire with small children who had pointy metal sticks), the new roommates explained the dilemma. Late that evening Jen gave me the schedule for the children at the Disney resort and said, “There is a change of plans. You are taking care of the youngest children tomorrow. I suggest they go to the finger painting and shark tooth necklace sessions. And please watch them while they are in the pool. I am taking the girls shopping. You can come by later an pay for stuff.”
She was nobody’s mother. Just Switzerland.
My feelings were hurt. Nobody wanted my opinion. Nobody wanted to be with me. I did get a nice rainbow finger painting and shark tooth necklace from my youngest daughter. She is seven. She still thinks I am fabulous.
Later that night I was walking along Wabasso Beach licking my psychological wounds as in, “nobody sees me as anything but a credit card,” and was then thrilled to see a phosphorescent sea. Such a sea occurs in the summer when the seaweed washes in and reflects light from the stars and moon. The ocean looks like it glows from within and is marvelous. In all my years of obsessive beach walking, I have only seen a phosphorescent sea twice. I am not a religious person and have often commented that the beach and ocean are my church.
I had been emotionally down for a week anyway, because I was recovering from a personal argument on my birthday with someone I care about. My answer wasn’t going to work, and dammit it was my birthday and I wasn’t giving up. Now, I have to collaborate or lose my friend. I had to collaborate—albeit with the help of a semi-professional aunt, or offend my daughter. I don’t care what my academic teacher self says about the value of conflict and collaboration when working or communicating with others. When it is just me, myself, and the pit of my stomach, conflict sucks. I don’t want to go through it, and I don’t want to learn from it.
However, that seaweed in the waves reflecting the light is some nasty stuff once it makes it way to the beach. It is only glorious when reflecting light as it rides the motion of the waves.
My stomach still hurts.
The American Express fraud department called when I was making the purchases at the fifth store of towels, trash cans etc. to ask, “Is this you? Why are you shopping in this town, and buying two sets of what you rarely buy? Do you really want to be doing this? Are you physically holding your card?” I explained I was paying to decorate a freshman dorm room. The cashier smiled and said, “Honey, your fun just started.”