The art of Collaboration

Some day I am going to craft a talk around collaboration.


There is something profound about working with someone and working to create something completely new out of who you are and who they are.  It isn't compromise where you each give up something to find a peaceful way.  Collaboration is about two people, giving 100% of who they are, doing the hard work of communicating to discover where their two thoughts and ideas come together to forge a new language.  That language for Henry and I is our speaking and writing together.  For others it can be music, spoken word, body art, dancing, gardening, cooking, community living, photography, leading an organization, it doesn't matter.

Collaboration is different than compromise.

What Henry and I strive to do in our work is absolute collaboration.  It is what I love and hate about our work.

(If you are new to my little world in blogsphere, then I should tell you that I am a stay at home mom who travels the country very part time as an inspirational speaker and am currently working on my first book with my speaking partner, Pastor Henry Graf.  Henry and I have been friends for a long time, and as two seasoned speakers, we wondered what having a conversational type presentation would look like from the stage.  This gives the audience a more authentic and personal interaction with the speakers and topic of discussion.  We have spoken together for years, and are currently trying our hand at moving what we do on stage, to the written word.  To say the very least, we are in a very steep learning curve.)

When we started working together, Henry and I were both professional speakers.  We were comfortable on stage and speaking in public.  We spent time crafting our work to be dynamic presenters.  Coming from a place of always taking the stage alone, it was so refreshing to share the responsibility with someone else.  Someone I trusted to fill in the blanks where I missed my mark, or read the audience and take our conversation where it needed to go to reach them where they were at.  I was no longer alone, and it felt very cool.

There was this really beautiful dynamic shift as well.  When I take the stage alone, I can get really intense and loud and passionate and sometimes emotional.  It's just kind of what I do.  Sometimes it involves yelling.  However, when you are sitting on stage with someone else, that doesn't tend to happen.  We are talking, discussing, laughing, searching scripture together.  It's very different, but very cool.

It felt like to me that I had found the perfect partner in this journey.  We balance each other out because we are so different.  Yes one is a man and one is a woman.  One is a Pastor and one struggles with the institution of the church.  But really, it reaches into the way we do life, not what we represent.  Henry is very analytical and intellectual, and those are not words I would use to describe myself.  He teaches, and I tell stories.  He thinks, I feel.  He moves fast, I am think before I act.  And even though we are both intense, somehow we are intense in very different ways, and I don't know how to describe that.  We bring such different things to the table for discussion, approach scripture from very different places and come away with very different ideas of what it means.  It makes for great conversation.

So imagine my surprise when just months ago, I realized that Henry and I weren't collaborating at all, but I was letting him take the lead and backing out of my responsibility to my own place in our partnership.

It was hard for me to figure this out until Henry and I spoke together three months ago.  We took the stage on Friday night at the conference kick off.  I experienced being on stage with Henry and he wasn't in his usual "loud/big self".  He felt more responsive than usual instead of charging the way.  When we debriefed our talk, he simply said, "you were the big personality tonight, so I backed off.  You usually aren't that dynamic."

Huh.  I didn't ever really think that I backed off and tampered my personality with him.  We chatted a bit more through that and continued on with our weekend.

Then, the book happened.  The book started off as a T-shirt idea that for the life of us, we couldn't agree on.    Then Henry had a brilliant idea that worked for us both.

Parables.  Earthly stories with Heavenly meaning.

We discussed the concept of the book, "telling stories, but more than stories, finding heavenly meaning in our everyday experiences, etc."  I loved it.  I thought it was a perfect first book for us.  It penned out on paper what we do on stage.  But the more we unpacked the book and gave a structure to it, the more confusing it got for me.  The harder and more complicated it became.

Henry would pen a thesis, a promotional email, a chapter outline.  He was working at lightening speed and it was hard to keep up.  I would read it, tweak it, process it, edit it, and send it back.

And something always felt just a little bit off.  I was still a part of the process.  My opinion mattered, but somehow, I was just responding, not speaking up.

And then I was standing in my kitchen, just getting off the phone with Henry, and I saw the red flags.  I saw myself shrinking back in my insecurities.  I was allowing my respect and admiration for Henry to shrink me.  When I elevated him, I became less.  I gave him the power and authority in the relationship instead of being in a partnership.  I let my old demons speak into my ear.  Lies that said my voice wasn't as significant as Henry's.  That storytelling was silly compared to teaching deep theological ideas.

I realized I wasn't owning my part in our partnership  I wasn't taking responsibility for my thoughts, my ideas, my voice and opinion.  I got steamrolled.  Henry wasn't doing this to me, I just let it take over.

What I realized was sometimes when we think we have overcome a weakness, a sin, it only reappears when pushed from a new angle.

I have worked alone for seven years, and now having a partner in this, this was a new angle for me.  And so my weakness and insecurities came flooding out.  I hated it.  I didn't know what to do with it.  I had moved past this.  I had conquered it.  I had surrendered it.

Or so I thought.

And then it brings us to last week when Henry showed up for a week of writing.  A week that we were going to use to make great head way with the book.

But I couldn't move forward because I wasn't ever fully present.

And so I showed up.  I really showed up and owned my voice, my opinions, my questions and my process.

We talked and processed a lot last week.

After we  processed our book, our ideas, our theologies, we talked some more.

Henry would push me to finish my thoughts.  To think through all the things I was trying to say but having a hard time articulating.  We dissected words that meant different things to each of us so that we could come to some kind of understanding.

We put our expectations for the week aside.  We sat uncomfortably the across from each other at the coffee shop and wrestled through our thoughts and opinions.

And at the end of the week, we came away with a books that feels like a conversation.  A new language of Henry's ideas and my thoughts.

We collaborated and found a book that speaks a new language that we took the time to understand and create.

Collaboration is not just hard work, its uncomfortable.  It is looking at your partner in the project and realizing that for you to say what you really think, you run the risk of them leaving.  You run the risk of them leaving project because they are done doing the hard work to find a new way.

It's risky and scary and vulnerable.  It feels exposed and in the end, the risk is worth it.

Writing a book on my own will probably be easier.  However, Henry pushes me to find myself.  To learn my process and understand my thoughts.  I have discovered so much about myself in the last couple months.  I have learned what it means to not have a boss or work alone, but to partner with someone and have them stay because they value you.

At the very least, God is using this experience to shape me.  To shape Henry.  To shape a new idea within us.  It's exciting.

It's tiring.

It's totally worth it.

Collaboration.  You need to be 100% yourself in order to have the conversation to create a new way.  To acknowledge who you are in order to give yourself to the expression of art in a new way.