The little secrets of collaboration: The opaque, empathetic, talking-listening balancing act

As I continue with this mini series on the secrets of collaboration, an important angle dawns on me: Among collaborators, where is the sweet spot between talking vs. listening?

Are you a listener or a talker? And more importantly: can you be both? (image credit: Playbuzz)
Are you a listener or a talker? And more importantly: can you be both? (image credit: Playbuzz)

And I mean: how do we each balance it out in order to truly be in a genuinely collaborative approach?

Of course this is a silly question.

Everyone wants to talk, needs to talk, and indeed most people do end up talking. A bit too much if you ask me ha ha ha.

Listening? That’s a whole other matter, as I’ve unpacked across several previous posts (from the heroic daily act of paraphrasing, to problem of monologues in events, using a precise language and the ‘lurking phenomenon‘ of ’empowered listeners’ in a community of practice).

So the balance should weigh in favour of more listening, right? Isn’t that where most gains can be achieved?

Yet, upon closer inspection, this question is thornier than first meets the eye.

Expanding our listening ability

Listening does require efforts. Active listening does anyhow. That is, listening with a real intent to understand what the other person is saying. A brilliant little piece came up in my news stream this week, in relation with an interview of Melinda Gates by Oprah Winfrey:

Empathy leads to listening—and listening leads to understanding. A conversation with Oprah is good for the soul.

Hence the point, in collaboratives to ‘Scale up’ your empathy, not your ‘pilot initiative’.

In collaboration listening is about cultivating a genuine curiosity and interest. Not just politely waiting your turn to say what’s on your mind again. And collaboration definitely needs a lot of listening. It’s no wonder that listening is often earmarked as one of the most important top leadership skills. High performers have mastered the art of listening, because they’ve understood it’s their door to getting as much insight as possible, their treasure trove of great ideas, spectacular solutions, and antidotes to ongoing problems.

So yes, we all do need to get better at listening. And that comes with purposeful practice.

But that’s only half of the story when it comes to collaboration.

Finding our right talking pitch

Indeed, if we all just listened to each other, there wouldn’t be any conversation to listen to.

We also need talkers, we need to talk. But not just anywhere, anytime, with anyone. It’s not about blabbering out and unidirectional logorrhoea… Talking is paradoxically even more difficult a balance to strike than listening, because we all talk pretty much every day, and as a result we all have an innate belief that we know how to talk effectively. And more to the collaborative point here, we all assume we talk respectfully to other people. Most of the time we probably don’t even think a second about that.

But what does it take to talk respectfully in collaboration?

It’s letting others find space to talk too. Not dominating that space so other voices can be heard.

And at the same time it’s ensuring that you get to speak up your mind, because you’re also one of the voices in the room. Your voice counts just as much. So you need to feel free to talk too.

For some that can be intimidating, because it gets us out of comfort zone of a head-to-head one-on-one conversation, yet talking is essential. Otherwise it means you’re also leaving your part of the story behind. Back to monologues or monochromatic narratives.

Talking in collaboration is about allowing your voice to join the chorus of other voices to form music. We need the whole orchestra to perform a true concerto.

Listen AND talk, that is the answer (image credit:
Listen AND talk, that is the answer (image credit:

Towards a T-shaped talking-listening balance then?

So essentially, if you talk quite a bit already, learn to silence yourself and listen more carefully.

If you don’t talk much, learn to get used to hearing your own voice in public, and to dare speaking up your mind. There might be the seed of a brilliant idea in those words you’re keeping for yourself.

And whatever happens, we can all always get better at listening so double down on it!

All of this boils down to a T-shaped profile: keep talking about what you know and are interested in: that’s the long leg of the T. But also cultivate curiosity and listening to find out what drives your collaborators: that’s the two arms of the T.

Collaboration feeds off of empathetic dialogue. And that is not a secret now, is it?

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Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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