The Five Rules of Being a Good Collaborator

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Collaboration, whether by choice or necessity, can be emotional and even downright messy. The more passionate and personally invested each collaborator is, the higher the likelihood that disagreements will occur, eventually bringing with them some interpersonal tension.

Here are five easy rules to help keep the energy in the room positive, constructive, and directed where it belongs: on the work.

1. Matters of aesthetic opinion need no logical justification.

Insecurity lies at the root of the urge to package a subjective idea with a fanciful, detailed, and tenuous justification. The only result of this strategy is that you’ll end up so fully invested in your own self-indulgent rationale as to become closed-minded and inflexible. Creative impulses need not be rational. Embrace that.

2. If you’re going to shoot down someone else’s work, come prepared with a better alternative.

In some cases, it’s entirely fair if your better alternative is simply to do nothing. For example, “I don’t think this tambourine overdub improves the song” is a completely fair position. But before you say “the lyrics in the chorus aren’t working for me,” make sure you’re able to suggest something you feel would work better.

At a minimum, show a commitment to working toward improvement: “Something’s bugging me about that chord. What’s the top note you’re playing? I wonder if we could try a different voicing?”

3. Choose your battles.

When I begin a collaboration, I think of myself as having a fixed amount of “interpersonal capital” to spend. Each time I assert myself to disagree with someone, it costs me a bit. If I overspend, I’ll go into debt and become toxic to the project — I’ll be resented, and my opinion won’t carry any weight.

In extreme cases, the consequences of this can even be further-reaching. My professional reputation is something like a credit score, and persistent debt has the ability to follow me and make my life difficult in future projects. Save your capital for when it really matters. You have less than you think, and trust me when I say you do not want to carry a negative balance.

4. Do your best to avoid arguing against an idea that hasn’t been tried, even if you’re 100 percent sure it’s a bad idea.

You might be astonished at how often something that seems like it would never work actually turns out to be brilliant and unique. And even if it doesn’t, trying the idea will almost always make the answer apparent in a manner far faster and clearer than a battle of pretzel logic (see #1). If you try the idea and it’s an obvious flop, you’ve just saved valuable interpersonal capital for future differences of opinion (see #3).

On the other hand, if the idea in question would cost a massive amount of money or time, it’s fair to do a sober assessment and gently make a case against it.

5. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

The best creative work rarely results from democratic processes. In most creative collaborations, one person will be the chief visionary at any given moment. If you’re not the one with the vision this time, recognize that, and do your best to understand what the leader’s aiming for.

Check your ego at the door, and work in good faith — you might even learn something you can use next time you’re the one steering.

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