Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On collaboration

on 2016 March 20

Things that make collaboration hard

Collaboration is hard. In all my efforts to work in volunteer groups in the past, so-called “collaboration” has felt like slowly wading through mud with people who don’t seem to be proposing anything specific, but they also don’t like or understand my ideas, and we’re doing something that isn’t really aligned with what I want to do, while everyone seems to overreact to very minor issues, and my patience wears thin.

In most of my attempts in the general (nondisabled) world, one or more of the following happens:

  • Someone decides “there is conflict” and we need “healing” before we can do anything. I never have any idea what they mean and I sense it is usually a delay tactic. I feel like we all always need healing, but it can never be complete.
  • We get people who want to study the situation forever and others who want it to be done immediately, with not much flexibility between the two groups. In one youth coalition I was in, the young people were really good at springboarding off each other’s inspiration and they wanted to decide things in rapid fire, while the older people seemed to miss that level of communication completely and they wouldn’t agree to anything. The young people had a sense of now, and not of the distant future, while the older people were only concerned with the distant future and could not do anything now. (Since at any moment, it’s always now, I guess they never did anything.)
  • Half the people who show up have the main objective of just using the meeting time to socialize or get attention, or they have no intention to do anything. Therefore, the longer it drags out, the better. Others want the meetings to be a short as possible.
  • Certain people who are used to having more than their share of social power intentionally try to foil democracy, so they’ll agree to democratizing procedures reluctantly, but then skirt them. Others try to make things equalizing and transparent, and that difference in interests tends to make discussions about internal procedures rather than about what the group is doing.
  • Someone will declare that before we can do one thing, we must do another thing. For example, before we can decide what to write in a letter, we need to decide what are objectives are. Or, before we can determine our objectives, we have to write the letter. There is no way to satisfy everyone’s sense of the proper sequence of events.

Parts of collaboration

I think there has to be room for three kinds of activity in “collaboration”:

1. contemplation – brainstorming, venting, listening, and anything unstructured – This takes the most time.

2. business – structured processes for deciding on actions

3. taking action

Any attempt at collaboration probably needs all three of these in some balance.

Autistic collaboration

I think it could take more patience to herd autistics than other people, or even to decide to collaborate. Some day maybe I’ll write an ethnography of our subculture, but for now, here are some unstructured points that maybe it could help to be aware of:

  • Autistic people tend to get triggered; most of us have some level of PTSD, and have extreme responses to situations that seem innocuous to others. So in a group, it’s reasonable to assume that at all times, someone may be getting triggered by something.
  • We’ve often been excluded, so we can get bitter and bring associated baggage to groups.
  • When the topic of collaboration is autism or disability, the fight for power over the conversation often becomes fiercely directed against autistic people. Groups that deal with other topics (transportation, environment, etc) might be more accessible, whereas groups that deal with disability could be more likely to turn us into tokens or “others”.
  • We may not have as much experience with collaborating effectively as others. If being in a group as an equal is very new to me, I might not know how to stay on topic, for example. I might not be aware of what is meant by the various words used to organize, like agendas, minutes, and petitions.
  • We tend to build up our own mental universe of “obvious” truths, which is not as shared with others as we think, and then we’re amazed that other people are so “dumb” because they don’t know what we know, or didn’t read our 10 page essay on the subject.
  • We tend towards “if this is not exactly 100% in line with what I’m trying to do, then I’m outa here”.
  • We sometimes assume that others are acting as a bloc when they are not, or that they are all followers of a certain leader. So if I put forth an idea and the leader is opposed to it, I might assume that everyone is acting as a bloc and they are all opposed to it. That’s discouraging.
  • Most of the people trying to organize autistic people are not themselves autistic at all, or they are a socially effective subtype that is not very representative of the rest of us. So even in groups that are supposedly for us and by us, we might still be excluded.
  • We have issues pretty often with energy level and commitments. I might offer to do some of the needed work, but then life could take a turn and I might not be able to do what I said.

I don’t have any answers, but I’m pretty sure effective autistic (or inclusive) collaboration would look different from effective allistic (or exclusive) collaboration.

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One response to “On collaboration

  1. Jason says:

    I’m a big fan of your Field Guide to Earthlings book. I think collaboration would be the next level topic for a similar dissection. A Field Guide to Collaboration among Earthlings!

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