Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust

Adam Kahane

131 pages, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017

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For those of us working on the frontlines of social change, problems often seem to be spreading faster than solutions. Merely scaling programs or organizations is not enough to address serious challenges such as income inequality, health care, racial injustice, and climate change. And in the United States, we are increasingly polarized as a nation—socially, economically, and politically. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that interest in collaboration is increasing. To achieve impact, we need to align our many fragmented organizations and work across sectors to change systems. But how to do this?

Who better to tackle this topic than Adam Kahane, who has spent more than 25 years working to solve complex problems with people of all backgrounds. Kahane started his career as a climate economist and then helped facilitate the Mont Fleur scenario-planning exercise in 1991, which brought together representatives from across South African society to envision an end to apartheid. He has since devoted his career to working with diverse stakeholders on seemingly intractable problems. For example, he helped facilitate dialogues between the Colombian government and the FARC insurgency, which led to the recent peace accord.

Like other “pracademics,” Kahane does a good job of bridging theory and practice, sharing his conclusions in easy-to-understand ways. His latest book, Collaborating with the Enemy, builds on his two earlier books on similar topics and focuses on how to get opponents to sit down together, build relationships, work through conflict, and eventually begin to find a way forward. Kahane acknowledges that while collaboration is often necessary to solve complex problems, it is very difficult. He also notes that it is not the only option. If participants cannot change the situation, they can either learn to live with the status quo or walk away (for example, by emigrating or fleeing). If they think they can change the situation, they can choose either to force their way or to engage with the opposition by collaborating.

Kahane offers a strong critique of many current approaches to collaboration, which he argues are often thinly veiled attempts to “force” others. “Conventional collaboration assumes that we can control the focus, the goal, the plan to reach this goal, and what each person must do to implement this plan (like a team following a road map),” he writes. He advocates for a radically different three-step approach, which he calls “stretch collaboration.” This method, he writes, “offers a way to move forward without being in control (like multiple teams rafting a river).”

The first step in stretch collaboration is to “embrace conflict and connection.” Kahane argues that true collaboration involves both engaging with others (“love”) and advocating for one’s own interests (“power”). These actions represent “complementary poles and we must choose both.” Kahane’s second step in collaboration is to “experiment a way forward.” To do this, participants must “stretch away from insisting on clear agreements about the problem, the solution, and the plan, and move toward experimenting systematically with different perspectives and possibilities.” Here, Kahane echoes ideas from design thinking and other innovation approaches: “In stretch collaboration, we co-create our way forward,” he writes. The last step concerns how individuals participate in the larger group. Kahane urges us to “step into the game,” by which he means “we must stretch away from trying to change what other people are doing, and move toward entering fully into the action, willing to change ourselves.” Systems can only change if every participant is willing to change his or her own behavior.

If we do all three of these things, Kahane writes, we will begin to embrace a new paradigm for social problem solving that is more holistic and less rationalistic. This is where I found Kahane’s theory harder to grasp. As a practitioner who often works with networks and collaborations, I wanted something slightly more tangible, or tactical, than his framework. While Kahane presents lucid examples of embracing conflict, I wanted to know what to do when conflict becomes destructive, divided parties cannot find a way forward, or the group grows frustrated and gives up.

It also seemed to me that by focusing on the facilitator’s perspective, Kahane overlooks other important aspects of these multistake-holder collaborations required for success: Who decides to convene the group, and who should be included? How is the initiative funded or resourced? What is the role of leadership or governance? Kahane does include an introductory guide for practicing these habits, but it is geared toward individual leaders.

That said, I still found Collaborating with the Enemy an important, profound, and smooth read. Kahane is at his best when critiquing current top-down approaches to collaboration and when highlighting what we need to do differently. In a world riven by conflict, I wish Kahane’s book were required reading for all political leaders and even citizens. If only we could learn how to work with people we may not agree with, like, or trust—we would all be better off .