Collaboration’s time has come. And it’s time to get everyone, not just talking about it,
but really good at doing it. Collaboration isn’t a set of tech tools or an ideal. It’s a verb – something we do. And we can do it well or really poorly. What makes the difference? The answer might surprise you: hospitality.
What’s hospitality got to do with it, you may wonder. Everything.
The simple concept of hospitality is the foundation of collaboration. By “collaboration” I mean convening – whether in government, business, or community, in person, on the phone or online – a group of people, diverse in background and perspective, toward a common purpose. The supposition is that the people being convened are in some way unknown to each other: either actual strangers meeting for the first time or at least people who have among them unknown, foreign or differing perspectives. It is to this meeting of strangers that hospitality speaks.
Abraham Offering Hospitality
The concept of hospitality comes to us from ancient times when people depended on each other in a way we don’t as much today, at least not in the developed world. There were far fewer of us then and there were great distances between our encampments. Travel was arduous, dirty and dangerous, making hospitality not merely a matter of kindness, but also of survival.
Strangers arriving at your door was not an uncommon event, and hospitality dictated how you treated them. Welcome with a bath, food, and drink, a place to sleep – this kind of hospitality seems extreme and is unthinkable for most of us today. And yet, its vestiges still hold as our protocol for overnight company and in hotels the world over.
Although the concept of hospitality has equivalents in all ancient languages, the English word comes from the Latin hospes. Interestingly, hospes refers both to the host and to the guest, as does the Greek counterpart xenos. This ambiguity of the term still exists in modern derivatives of Latin, for example, the Italian word ospite. I remember when I first lived in Italy 20 years ago this confused me plenty: was I invited to the party or to host the party? The root of my confusion was, of course, my mother tongue, which divides the concept: host (from hospes) and guest (from the German gast, meaning stranger). I remember vaguely wondering why the Italians suffered under this confusion, thinking that they must somehow be bereft of vocabulary.
Today, hospitality has come to signify more of a nicety than a necessity. And yet, there is a renewed need for it. The technology of travel means that we can get anywhere pretty much any time, and the technology of information means we can do so virtually in seconds. The borders of our encampments, both geographical and ideological, constantly bump up against each other now, bringing new resonance to the notion of hospitality. We are being called to apply hospitality to the entryways, not just of our homes, but of our hearts and minds. Collaboration begins here.
Collaboration is hospitality on steroids. If you’re the convener, it’s as if a caravan of travelers has descended on your doorstep, and what’s more, you invited them. And there’s something you need from them, so making sure they feel welcome, they’re clear about the purpose of the visit, and how they’re going to get their needs met are all essential to a genial, productive relationship. The adept collaboration convener plans for these logistics well before any of the participant guests arrive (see more on this here).
In the same way ancient hospitality ritualized the treatment of strangers in the
home, collaboration calls for ritual that welcomes strange opinions and foreign modes of self-expression in the conversation. The ritual itself signals the participant that “strangers” are indeed welcome. And like all ritual, it is the attitude behind it that endows its meaning. Anyone can go through the motions of hospitality, but it is the feeling of the open heart that makes us know we are welcome. Collaboration is ultimately defined by this.
But there’s another important dimension of hospitality at work today that takes us further into territory useful for collaboration. The Latin hospes is formed
from hostis, which meant “to have power,” and the Online Etymology Dictionary gives the literal translation of “host” as “lord of strangers.” Where the ancients took for granted the roles of guest and host as sacrosanct in the ritual of hospitality, today we push against such conventional relationships.
Jacques Derrida, originator of deconstruction, put this hospitality power dynamic into sharp relief for us. What Derrida saw was that hospitality is a paradox: what makes hospitality possible is ultimately what makes it impossible. If being hospitable requires that someone has the power to host, which means, in some measure, the ability to control the guest, then, says Derrida, this control is, in fact, inhospitable. On the other hand, if hospitality means the host is obligated to welcome without rules or boundaries whoever arrives (say, a complainer, or worse, a thief or harm doer), then the host is stripped of the very power and control that makes hospitality possible.
Derrida’s reasoning is, I think, instructive for collaboration as well. If I convene a
collaborative process and act as host by creating the rules and protocols by which the “guests” will participate, haven’t I taken control, thereby constricting the participants and undermining the very goal of collaboration itself? The goal being an interaction of equals toward a shared creation. And if, on the other hand, the convener does not act as host, does not develop and maintain process rules and governance, thereby causing chaos or a survival-of-the-fittest contest of wills among the participants, won’t many feel disenfranchised and leave? And again, the goal of collaboration is unrealized.
Derrida’s hospitality paradox – and the peril of collaboration - lies in the apparent power struggle between the host and guest (convener and participant, in collaboration). It’s as if these roles sit opposite each other on a set of scales, with things weighted all on one side or the other. But the key to their balance is, for me, found in the, well, ambidextrousness of the ancients’ language.
The fact that the same word (hospes, xenos) represents both roles may not signify a dearth of vocabulary as I once thought, but rather a deep understanding of the very nature of hospitality itself. The ambiguity instructs me that guest and host are but two sides of the same coin, interchangeable among us. No one is always host and no one is always guest, no one always in control and no one always compliant.
Hospitality is the proscribed ritual for bringing strangers together well. The roles of host and guest are part of this ritual, but they are simply a means to the ultimate end of what hospitality intends. The key again comes from the ancients’ language. Hospes is the root of, not only hospitality, but also hospital and hospice. What these have in common, more than tending to the ill or a protocol for doing so, is the way that’s done. This is the essence of hospes: Caring for people.
It is the caring then that enlivens the ritual created for bringing people together
well and that acts as the fulcrum for the role of host on one side and that of
guest on the other, tempering the extremes of each. Caring is the both the underlying method and the intended outcome of hospitality.
The same is true for collaboration. Caring for each other in the process of collaboration, and caring for the higher purpose to which we all are invited as the ultimate outcome of it is the foundation of collaboration done well. As conveners, if we will remember this and let it guide our role as host, our participant guests will do what humans do in a hospitable environment: enjoy and learn from each other. Great things come from this and it is within our grasp.