Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships by James Tamm and Ronald Luyet – Here are my five lessons and takeaways

Radical Collaboration• {Which writer’s rooms are best? – “Ones that are collaborative and you feel heard. Nothing worse than a room that is mean spirited and judgmental. Like many of them.
Bryan Behar, Sit-Com writer and showrunner}.
• Today nobody succeeds alone. If you don’t have the skills to build relationships, you’d better win the lotto, because you’ll never thrive in any organization, and you probably won’t even survive in most businesses.
• Radical Collaboration teaches methods to significantly improve your own collaborative skills, so that if and when you choose to build a collaborative relationship, you will know how to.
• While honesty is always an important issue in relationships, what we were really trying to create is greater transparency, which relates more to Openness and psychological safety.
• Everyone claims to be collaborative and lists collaboration high in most lists of organizational values. In practice, however, behaviors are often dominated by hidden or unconscious adversarial attitudes.
• Because teams, businesses, and organizations live or die based upon effective collaboration, learning these skills will result in a dramatic and measurable impact on your bottom line.
• Epigraph:
RADICAL adj. – of or from the root: fundamental, favoring basic change, as in the social structure.
COLLABORATION n. – to work or act jointly, to labor together.
James Tamm and Ronald Luyet, Radical Collaboration


Let’s start here.  Do you want to be a collaborator?  A good collaborator?

If you don’t, then rather obviously, you can skip reading this.  But if you don’t, in our modern world of constant collaboration, you will be left behind.  Far behind.

It is a collaborator’s world these days.  And if you are not collaborating, you are missing the boat.  And, if you are collaborating poorly, you will not be very valuable to your organization, or to your fellow collaborators.

And even if you are good at collaborating, and you like collaborating, you can still get better at it.  And you can help your fellow collaborators get better at it.

At the September First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of the very excellent book Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships by James W. Tamm and Ronald J. Luyet.  This book has been out quite a while, first published in 2004.  But this edition was clearly brought up to date in its 2019 publication.

This is a book worth your attention.

Notice the subtitle:  Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships.  The authors are convinced that defensiveness is the great enemy of good collaboration; and they may be right.  Read to the end of this post to find their insights about defensiveness, and their suggestions about combating defensiveness.

As I always do in my synopses, I ask What is the point?  Here is my answer for this book:       • You need to be good at collaborating with others. Here’s how. — Your company needs to be a place where good collaboration is happening.  Here’s how.

And I ask, Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three answers for this book
#1 – This is a book about interpersonal relationship challenges – at work, in families, and in all arenas of life.
#2 – This book believes that everyone is defensive about something from deep within, from long ago, with ripple effects for the rest of their lives, in all the arenas of their lives.  Becoming aware is a survival and success strategy.
#3 – This book is a book filled with exercises to learn to know yourself, to work better with others, to negotiate effectively.  These exercises are revealing; and useful.

I always include Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” my highlighted Passages.  Here are quite a few of the best of the best: 

• Organizations today are advocating more flexibility in people’s roles, acceptance of change at a faster pace, more shared decision making and creative problem solving, and more trust from teams who must constantly redefine their tasks. 
• Many companies had developed all their employees for years by encouraging them to excel at becoming “star” individual contributors. Now, with a change of policy like a flick of a switch, they were supposed to think, feel, and act like a team, where their greatest contribution now might be to support someone else’s success. 
• Remember, successful collaborative relationships work from the inside out. Collaboration starts inside you first, then moves out into individual relationships, teams, and organizations.   
• As adults in stressful or conflicted situations, our emotional memory process may associate current events with childhood experiences that occurred before we were equipped to deal with them in a balanced manner.   
• “Fight, flight, freeze, or appease” responses were important in human evolution. 
• The danger is that people may approach any issue, problem, or person in an adversarial way.  …We tend to search immediately for logical weaknesses and flaws in our “opponent’s” point of view. Our goal is not to listen carefully and fully understand but rather to refute the other’s arguments even before hearing all of them. 
• The main reason people get into relationship trouble is that they get defensive.  Defensiveness not only impacts their own problem-solving skills, it also invites everyone else to get defensive, rigid, and ineffectual as well. When the room is filled with defensive, rigid-thinking, ineffective problem solvers, the result is disaster!
• Defensiveness is always based on a fear. Always, always, always! If someone is acting like a defensive jerk, it can be helpful to know that he or she undoubtedly feels threatened or afraid. 
• People tend to create new stories to justify old behaviors.
• When their hot buttons get pushed, people typically get dumber rather than smarter. By our informal calculations, there’s about a twenty-point drop in IQ. Unfortunately this is often accompanied by an equal but opposite conviction that we’ve become more perceptive rather than dumber. 
• Picture an angry young man with a sarcastic, sneering look on his face yelling to his girlfriend as he walks away, “Of course I love you!” His credibility is zero.  …A lot of research demonstrates that credibility is dramatically reduced when tone of voice, body language, and content are out of alignment. 
• When you ask a question, be aware that you’re sending the speaker in the direction that you want to go rather than where the speaker would naturally go. 
• Man doesn’t simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.—Viktor Frankl  — …To some extent, your life is a reflection of the sum of your choices. If you want a different life, consider making different choices. 
• Parties have dealt with inclusion issues, been clear about their intentions, and agreed upon process issues. Then they agreed on the problem statement, which is a list of issues to be resolved by the parties. They explored and understood all the interests of all parties. They have developed contingency plans that they can implement on their own if the parties can’t reach agreement. They have also worked jointly to generate a large number of possible solutions to solve the problem.
• Now the job is to carefully review all the possible solutions and measure them against the interests of the parties and their contingency plans.
• Any solution will have to be better than the contingency plans of both parties or they shouldn’t enter into it.  
• Realize that all emotions are acceptable, but not all actions are acceptable. …Give up blame and postpone judgment.

And, then, in my synopses, I share the most important insights from the book.  Here are a number that I shared for this book.  There is a lot here.  You might want to read these fairly slowly.   

  • Remember –
  • you have things to accomplish
  • together
  • therefore, you have to work well together – to collaborate – to accomplish the things you need to accomplish…
  • good collaboration leads to better results in all of your endeavors.
  • Assumptions
  • you, and everyone, has “baggage”
  • there will be conflict…
  • (and, there will be some…mean-spirited…jerks)
  • but, the future, and success, belongs to those who learn to collaborate well – to radically collaborate
  • It all started with chickens…The three zones:
  • Zone 1 – The Red Zone – highly conflicted, adversarial culture.
  • Zone 2 – The Pink Zone — conflict-avoidant passive-aggressive.
  • Zone 3 – The Green Zone — a more collaborative culture; an authentic, nondefensive presence. — The more individuals stay in the Green Zone, tell the truth, are accountable for the consequences of their choices, strive to increase self-awareness, and communicate their good intentions, the greater the chances for successful collaboration.
  • (Slight oversimplification: Red Zone; dominance; Pink Zone, survival, slightly ahead of others; Green Zone, more success for all). 
  • Since human beings have to be the ones to collaborate, we have to be attentive to human concerns, human struggles, human traits…
  • {R.M., I’m tempted to just say: develop emotional intelligence/learn about soft skills, develop soft skills mastery, and then collaborate using those soft skills}
  • this book basically says: become a better human, and then collaborate; because, as a better human, you will be able to collaborate.
  • The human reality:
  • insecurity; fear; defensiveness
  • conflict; too much conflict — Deborah Tannen, in her book The Argument Culture, presents a powerful case that many cultures approach problem solving as if they were going to war. According to Tannen, the primary tool in most relationships reflecting this adversarial attitude is “the argument.” Criticizing used as a weapon replaces critical thinking.
  • The Five Essential Skills:
  • Essential Skill #1: Collaborative Intention: a personal commitment to mutual success in their relationships.
  • Essential Skill #2: Openness: Individuals commit to both telling the truth and listening to the truth.
  • Essential Skill #3: Self-Accountability: Individuals take responsibility for the circumstances of their lives, the choices they make either through action or failing to act, and the intended or unforeseen consequences of their actions. They would rather find a solution than find someone to blame.
  • Essential Skill #4: Self-Awareness and Awareness of Others: Individuals commit to knowing themselves deeply and are willing to explore difficult interpersonal issues.
  • Essential Skill #5: Negotiating and Problem-Solving: Individuals negotiate conflicts in a way that supports strong relationships and use problem-solving methods that promote a cooperative atmosphere.
  • Pay careful attention to:
  • your own self-talk
  • your reactions now being shaped by your own thinking, and baggage, to that other person, in that other situation/circumstance
  • morale – morale is healthy, and increasing, among the Green Zone groups and companies
  • Defensiveness, the big problem; the #1 block to teamwork. — Defensiveness, ultimately, is not about protecting ourselves from other people. People get defensive because they don’t want to experience uncomfortable feelings within themselves.

• Ten Signs of Defensiveness
#1 — A spurt of energy in your body
#2 — Sudden confusion
#3 — Flooding your audience with information to prove a point
#4 — Withdrawing into silence
#5 – Magnifying or minimizing everything
#6 — Developing “all or nothing” thinking
#7 — Feeling like you’re a victim or you’re misunderstood
#8 — Blaming or shaming others
#9 — Obsessive thinking
#10 — Wanting the last word

• Six steps to combat defensiveness:
#1 — Take responsibility for yourself (acknowledge that you’re getting defensive)
#2 — Slow down—activate your senses outward (reactivate your whole brain)
#3 — Feel your emotions and discover your underlying fear—activate your senses inward (name your emotions and fears)
#4 — Confront your negative self-talk (change your inner dialogue to be supportive)
#5 — Apply your unique Action Steps (counteract your specific signs of defensiveness)
#6 — Appreciate, celebrate, and start over (appreciate your progress)

  • Aim for this:
  • turn conflict into collaboration — Maintaining an authentic nondefensive presence is the single most important thing you can do to increase your effectiveness when working to turn conflict into collaboration.  
  • Being able to create an atmosphere that reduces other people’s overreactions as well as your own is a great asset in building collaboration.
  • “psychological safety.” — Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, who defines it as “a shared belief held by members of the team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” Edmondson says, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” In other words, it describes a team that’s operating with a Green Zone culture.
  • About your communication. When you are congruent, it all goes together (words; tone; body language). When you are not congruent, then:
  • Not congruentContent (the words) accounts for only 7 percent. Tone of voice accounts for 38 percent. Body language accounts for 55 percent.
  • Congruent: when the content, tone of voice, and body language are all consistent in communicating the same message, then the content will rule and the message is much more believable.
  • So…people believe your words IF THEY MATCH your tone and body language. If your words do not match, they are not believed.

Listen! — The other side of creating an open, truthful environment is being able to listen sincerely to others. This, in turn, is what helps create a feeling of safety for others to be more open.

  • A listener has two main jobs. The first is to create a safe environment for the speaker to be open about something. …People generally share only to the extent that they feel safe. …The second job of the listener is to understand what’s being communicated in such a way that the speaker feels understood.
  • Listeners, however, can encourage greater depth and intimacy with a tell-me-more attitude than by a cross-examination as though the speaker were in a witness chair.
  • Try the Three Perspectives Exercise:
  • You have looked at this dispute from three different perspectives. The first perspective was your own point of view. The second was from the point of view of the other party to the dispute. The third point of view was that of a neutral, objective observer.

And here are my five lessons and takeaways:

#1 – You have to work at – you have to put in the practice and the work – to get good at collaboration.
#2 – You have to do the work of knowing yourself in order to be ready to be able to do the hard work of good collaboration.
#3 – You are defensive. You will react defensively. This comes from your own fears, and your own insecurities – form earlier in your life.  Examine the origins of your defensiveness.  And get to work to not let your defensiveness dominate, or harm, your efforts at collaboration.
#4 – You have to aim for mutual success.  Only that will lead to the kind of collaboration we need in this era.
#5 – The kind of work you need to do to get good at this requires practice; doing the exercises; and patience.  And…resolve; and intention.

My suggestion:  read this post a couple of times.  Then, maybe, order my full synopsis.  (See below).

And, then, read the book carefully.  Chances are you are needing to do a lot of collaborating these days.  And, chances are, you could get better at it.  This book will help.  Read it.  Then…get better at collaborating.

After all, your fellow collaborators need you to be the best collaborator you can possibly be!

Note from Randy:collaborative-habit

Pretend you asked me this question:  “Randy, what are the two books I should read on collaboration?”  First, read The Collaborative Habit by the great choreographer Twyla Tharp.  Then read this book.  Read them both, examine your own collaborative practices, and get to work.  These two books can help make you a very good collaborator!


You can purchase our synopses presentations from the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  On that page, you can search by book title. And click here for our newest additions. My synopses for Radical Collaboration will be available soon.

Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page synopsis handout, plus the audio recording of my presentation delivered at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.

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