Collaborating with the Enemy — Book Review

How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust

Collaboration is essential in today’s workplace, but you might have to work with people whom you dislike and who dislike you. This is what Collaborating with the Enemy is all about. Collaborating with the Enemy explains how we can navigate through these delicate matters of collaborating even with our worse enemy. Read more on this genre with 48 Laws of Power.


Collaborating with the Enemy

“We can’t work out how to collaborate until we understand when to collaborate.”

This includes working with family or relatives as well as colleagues that you may not like & may even hate and who may dislike & hate you in return. Sometimes you must collaborate with your enemies to achieve common goals.

Disparate groups often face the challenge of having to resolve apparently nonnegotiable differences, even when the group members distrust each other.

Consider how political enemies collaborated successfully in South Africa in the late 20th century. President F.W. de Klerk and political activist Nelson Mandela came together to end apartheid and transform South Africa into a democracy. Remember, the South African government imprisoned Mandela for years, but then, he and the government reconciled their differences for the greater good for their nation.

“In non-hierarchical, non-controlled stretch collaboration, we cannot ‘get’ anyone to do anything, so we need to take a different approach.”

However, collaboration may not work in every situation. If it doesn’t, the possible participants must select a default position among three alternatives: (1) Forcing; (2) Adapting; & (3) Exiting

  1. Forcing
    People wield this power move when they think they can unilaterally impose their ideas and solutions.
    They think they know the best answer to the problem at hand.
    They disregard their opponents’ or enemies’ viewpoints and seldom collaborate.
  2. Adapting
    People who believe they can’t change their current circumstances adapt to whatever is in front of them.
  3. Exiting
    If adapting doesn’t work, some people flee an inhospitable situation by “quitting, divorcing or walking away.”

Collaborating with the Enemy — Talking and Listening

Collaboration depends a lot on effective communication. Hence, it requires us to find an imaginative way for a conversation and willpower to listen to other people, even when your relationship with them is tense.

“Conventional collaboration works only in simple, controlled situations. In other situations, we need to stretch.”

People generally talk and listen in four modes:

  1. “Presencing” 
    A word that combines “pre-sensing” with “being fully present” aimed to breaks down the walls that separate groups.
    Someone who is using presencing might say,
    What I am noticing here and now is…”
  2. “Dialoguing” 
    This requires empathy.
    For successful collaboration, your orientation should be,
    I hear where you are coming from.
    To share a point of view by using dialoguing, say,
    In my experience…
  3. “Downloading
    This approach reflects the assertive style an expert might adopt.
    The mind-set for downloading is,
    I say what I always say because I think that my story is either the only true one or the only one that is safe or polite to tell.”
    People who are downloading often ignore or suppress other people’s thoughts and ideas by saying,
    The truth is…
  4. “Debating” 
    Staying outside the conversation means you’re posing a judge making a ruling on its content. Debaters might say,
    This is correct and that is incorrect” or
    In my opinion…
    Debating focuses on clashes of ideas, and it doesn’t foster collaboration.

“A belief that ‘I am right and you are wrong’ can easily slip into ‘I deserve to be superior and you to be inferior.’”

Downloading and debating reinforce the status quo.

Effective collaborators rely on presencing and dialoguing instead.


Stretch Collaborating with the Enemy

Most people don’t collaborate with their enemy because they misconstrue what collaboration actually means. They believe it occurs only among colleagues who are glad to work together to attain shared goals.

They assume collaboration is controllable.

But rather, collaboration might be better described by the phrase, “enemy of my enemy is my friend“. Might be a group of people, who don’t like each other much, but still shared a common goal.

“If we want to get important things done in complex situations, then we can’t spend our time just watching and blaming and cajoling others.”

Now, let’s look into stretch collaboration, a system you can use to work effectively, even with your enemies. This allows people to move ahead even if they lack control over the outcome. It helps rivals use trial & error to create a mutually acceptable reality.

Members in stretch collaboration don’t expect to achieve “harmony, certainty and compliance.” But they work through conflict and use trial & error to reach “co-creation.

“Stretch to experiment with…multiple perspectives and possibilities in order to discover, one step at a time, what will work.”


3 Dynamic of Stretch Collaboration

Stretch collaboration’s three dynamics might seem unnatural when you first use them, but like almost everything else, practice will make you more adept.

They are:

  1. Dealing with the other collaborators 
    Successful collaborators don’t adjust to their counterparts.
    They understand that harmony isn’t the point.
    Instead, they focus on achieving common goals, and that requires connecting with people they dislike, even their enemies.
  2. Forwarding your agenda 
    Effective collaborators also move away from the idea that everyone must agree on the “problem, the solution and the plan.
    Rather, they are willing to experiment and to consider different perspectives to attain acceptable goals.
  3. Functioning within the circumstances at hand 
    Finally, those who collaborate well don’t expect to change the people on the other side of the table.
    Instead, they try to change themselves for the better. Focus on yourself first.

Holons (a whole that is part of a larger whole)

In stretch collaboration, we should focus on “multiple, diverse holons.” A holon is “a whole that is part of a larger whole.” That is, they must align themselves to a bigger picture that incorporates “multiple emergent possibilities.”

“We need to collaborate, not only with colleagues and friends, but also with opponents and enemies.”

Remember, we need to be realistic, maintain an open mind and “listen for possibility rather than for certainty.” Respectful listening opens your mind to options no one has considered or imagined previously.

You can’t move forward unless you are willing to experiment, and experimentation can’t work unless you listen to your opponents’ ideas.

Open listening” promotes fresh perspectives and new thinking.

“We fear that if we collaborate with those others, we will become contaminated or compromised.”


Stretch collaboration uses three different “stretches”:

1. The First Stretch – Embrace Conflict and Connection

People operate according to two basic drives:
The first is power
, self-actualizing which involves asserting yourself, and the second is love, engaging and reunification with others.

These two drives complement one another. Successful collaborators strive to achieve both goals, “alternately rather than simultaneously.

“Loosen your attachment to your own opinions, positions and identities…Sacrifice your smaller, constricted self to your larger, freer one.”

For example, conflict and connection explain how Mandela brought about the “miraculous 1994 transition” in South Africa.
First, he asserted himself and the African National Congress by engaging in open conflict with the South African government and its program of apartheid. The South African government sent him to prison for engaging in those rebellious activities.
Once out of prison, however, Mandela worked for the good of his country to connect and successfully collaborate with de Klerk. Mandela “knew how and when to engage and how and when to assert.”


2. The Second Stretch – Experiment a Way Forward

Stretch collaboration differs from “conventional” collaboration. The traditional approach involves “agreeing on the problem, the solution, and the plan to implement the solution and then executing this plan.

“Conventional collaboration focuses on engaging, and that does not make room for asserting, so it becomes ossified and brittle; it settles into a stupor and gets stuck.”

The approach works when everyone wants to accomplish the same goal. It doesn’t work when opposing groups want to achieve differing goals. Reconciling disparate goals requires bold experimentation with different possible articulations and actions.

Making the second stretch work is straightforward but challenging: Advance one step, observe the action’s effect on the overall situation and then advance another step.

By adopting a trial and error approach, you and your counterparts can move ahead to better collaboration.

“Collaborating with others, especially others who do not agree with or like or trust us, requires us to join with them, shoulder to shoulder, as peers and equals.”

The second stretch phase calls for presencing and engaging in serious dialogue.

Note: A proper stretch perspective doesn’t include debating, because that doesn’t move collaboration forward; it just maintains the status quo.


3. The Third Stretch – Step into the Game

Collaboration won’t work if you try to change other people. You can only change ‘you’.

You must change yourself and engage in the action around you. Standing on the sideline as an observer accomplishes nothing.

“We cannot change the rules of the game, so we must play it as well as we can.”

Accept “connection and conflict.” And then adjust your focus from what the other parties will do to what you will do. Collaboration doesn’t rely on reforming other people but it focuses on changing yourself. This requires courage.

Abandon what you know, what is safe and what is comfortable.

Stretch Yourself

Collaboration requires you to stretch, realign your perspective, change and experiment with innovative approaches.

None of this is easy.

Practice new approaches to make them effective.

“Stretching requires you to move toward rather than away from different others. You will learn the most in those situations you find most difficult: when others do not do as you want them to and so force you to pause and find a fresh way forward.”


Comprehensive six-week program of introspection and practice of Stretch Collaboration:

  • Week 1 
    Figure out your baseline for using power and love.
    Determine how often you assert yourself and how often you try to engage others. Establish whether “power and asserting” or “love and engaging” makes you feel most comfortable.
    Ask your colleagues to evaluate how well you assert yourself and how well you engage with others.
  • Week 2
    Once you know your baseline, strengthen your weaker drives.
    Discuss your efforts with colleagues.
    Ask them for feedback regarding how well you are building up your weaknesses.
  • Week 3
    Assess your baseline regarding how well you talk with others and how well you listen.
  • Week 4
    Concentrate on achieving meaningful, engaging communication.
    This includes dialoguing and presencing.
    Take time to record your daily observations.
  • Weeks 5 and 6 
    Get off the sidelines and into the action.
    Revisit a potentially collaborative activity that may be underway but stuck.
    Taking the perspective of an uninvolved observer, write down how you see its progress.
    Then record your perception of the activity as if you were an active participant, co-creating a result that you and your organization find suitable.
    Establish what you need to do to bring about the most advantageous outcome for you and your colleagues.

You Might Need New Behaviors & Mind-set

You will need to develop new behaviours and a mindset that is conducive for collaborating. As you practice collaborative techniques, put your new behaviours into use and embrace “complex and conflictual situations.” You may need to make radical mental and behavioural changes.

Stop thinking, “It must be this way.” Start thinking, “It could be this way.” Instead of thinking, ” I must be right.”, start thinking, “How do I know I’m right?”. Open your mind to every scenario and possibility. Make unfettered, open-ended thinking your operational stance.

Successful collaboration is non-hierarchical. It never calls on a mindset of “us versus them, friends versus enemies, heroes versus villains, good versus bad, innocent versus guilty.”

In stretch collaboration, you aren’t the protagonist in a drama. Nor are you the director of an intricate production. You’re an actor in the event – a co-creator of the action. Focus selflessly on other participants in the collaboration, including people you would normally oppose and who would normally oppose you.

As Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki (1904–1971) put it,
In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.

Successful collaboration requires a beginner’s mind. And “Collaborating with the Enemy” is a good book to start with.

Read Collaborating with the Enemy



Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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