July | August 2017

David Chrislip, author of “The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook,” has more than 30 years of experience working with comprehensive community collaborations. He offers his advice on ways to improve collaboration within the legislature.


Issues many times are framed in such a narrow way that it doesn’t allow much movement on either side. When both sides start with a strictly defined position, Chrislip said, “they essentially define the other side out of engagement.” That often can prevent collaboration, he said. “One thing that can help is if you can begin to frame the issues in a broader way that might allow space for both sides to engage in it,” Chrislip said. “How do you frame an issue in a more open-ended way that allows more people to engage on it versus framing it in a narrow way, which excludes people?”


People today often are identified with a particular partisan faction that can create difficulties when trying to work with members of the other party, Chrislip said. “Because of that identification, they may not have the credibility, or people simply won’t believe them,” he said. That requires an extra effort to make clear the desire to work across the aisle. “How do you … present yourself in ways that people (won’t) just pigeonhole you (as) that, ‘Oh, you’re this party’ or ‘You’re that party.’”


Many times the desire to work across the aisle lacks credibility because of a lack of trust. Legislators can start to rebuild trust, Chrislip said, by restarting some old rituals, like breakfast or lunch with someone from the other party. They also can perform some “out of the ordinary” actions to illustrate interest in changing the dialogue. For instance, even if someone has been stuck in a position for years and is clearly identified with that position, Chrislip said, he or she still can establish a path to change. They could say, for instance, “I’m willing to let go of some of the things I wanted on this issue so we can open up the conversation,” Chrislip said.


Chrislip said it’s helpful to establish guidelines for how to engage and stick to those guidelines. For instance, he said it’s good to begin from an understanding of what is going on around an issue rather than the starting point for each political side. “Back up from those positions and start from a perspective of, ‘What is it we don’t know about this issue,’” he said. Look at how others affected by the issue understand the issue and how does it affect them. “Back away from the positions that people bring to the table, which, in legislatures today, seem to be the prominent way people start,” he said.


Few people are willing to pay attention to the process of how people engage, Chrislip said. That’s where a mediator can help. “Are there some mediators? Are there some negotiators, some people who serve in a more mediating role rather than an advocacy role?” he said. “When you can cultivate or find those people within legislative bodies, you have a better chance of engaging people.”