When we’re nine-to-five employees, it's not often, dare I say ever at all, where we get to choose who we want to work with. Our bosses pair us up in teams or throw us into group projects with others all under the same roof and give us an aneurysm by tasking us with delivering a piece of work together.

Your boss doesn’t care what you think of the other employee(s), how the hell so-and-so earns more than you (because you secretly know their salary), or why so-and-so is the project lead and not you. Your boss just cares about the bottom line. There’s drama, there’s animosity, there’s ranting and unloading on our loved ones when we’re pouring our 5th glass of Pinot Grigio.

All of it is completely out of your control. This is why they call it “work.” You just have to suck it up and get on with it. There is no creative process or agency here, only making sure we keep our jobs.

But as freelancers, collaboration is a personal choice… 

And not just any kind of choice, but an extremely risky choice that can shatter our dreams, desires, and personal relationships if we don’t get them right—no different to a few friends moving in together and taking a risk on their friendship by becoming housemates. I myself have become estranged from “buddies” of the past due to our collaborations taking a turn for the worse…and we simply couldn’t return to being just mates. 

One of those collaborations was an exciting project of writing a screenplay together. Oh boy, how innocent and naive were we? We barely made it past the first act before the drama train crashed into the living room on a cold February Tuesday night. 

Another partnership involved running a production company with a business partner that came to a close last year— as the years went on, it was evident that I was the subservient one in the relationship, not an equal. 

However, not all my endeavors have ended in tears. I could share stories of countless collaborations that have blossomed—where people who were once strangers or mere distant colleagues, became a friend and co-creator. 

During the pandemic, I took the risk again of joining forces with a good friend to co-write a screenplay with her, and unlike my past experience as described above, we were two peas in a pod by the 2nd page. That particular project has already won its first award, and we are onto our second script together—and our friendship on a new level because of it. 

Whether the collaboration works to perfection or is a complete disaster, one thing’s for sure, I’ve learned a helluva lot along the years. 

Here are my 5 Top Tips to being a better collaborator:

  1. The olde adage “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason” couldn’t be truer

I’ve always held a slightly cynical belief that, generally speaking, people don’t actually listen. They simply wait for the other party to stop talking, so that they can make their point. This is why nobody ever learns anything in civil debate and changes their mind. While someone is arguing a point, the other party is thinking about their next ‘gotcha’ and rehearsing it. This is why most debates turn into squabbles of “excuse me, I’m not finished yet” and accusations of “who got to speak more.” I hold both my hands up when it comes to this, I’m just as guilty. But, when you collaborate—learn to truly listen 

  1. Set realistic and achievable goals

If you really believe you only have the time to do X before the next time you meet, then say that. If you believe that doing X is out of the question at this point, then say that. Whatever you do, don’t make false promises out of thin air in an attempt to impress your collaborator—only to let them down and proceed to rattle off every excuse in the book. It’s unhealthy and very quickly, things will become passive-aggressive. Set achievable goals with each other, put them in a calendar, work towards them together while holding yourself to account, just as if you were still working alone. 

  1. Focus on each others’ strengths, not weaknesses

This one sounds obvious but I assure you, it never is. I’m immediately reminded of an old boss back in my agency days, who always got pissed off at designers’ weaknesses while ranting and raving at meetings with me (I managed the studio) about what she wished they’d do better—instead of actually using them for their natural talents and strengths. Everyone was always miserable and on edge anticipating their next earful, and of course staff turnover was rampant. My boss wasn’t a good collaborator, she was just a boss. Don’t be a boss in your collaborations, be a molder of talent in your partner. After all, there’s a reason you’re working with them, right? 

  1. Say the wrong thing in pursuit of trying to say the right thing

When collaborators do this one, it’s a sign of openness and honesty—the bedrock foundation of which your collaboration should be built on. In my experience, things always get a bit sensitive and tender when we try to avoid confrontation, beat around the bush, sugar coat things (and all those synonymous phrases), which, let's be honest, is only natural for the creative process. Hell, maybe even natural for us Brits in general, from a cultural perspective. I’m not saying to be cold, brutal, and heartless like a Wall Street banker (I actually believe that there is such a thing as “too honest” in life), I’m simply saying it’s a good thing to accidentally offend each other in pursuit of trying to get the best out of each other.

  1. Finally—the best idea ALWAYS wins

If your ego can handle the previous four, then I’m sure it can handle this one. Ladies & Gents, it’s not about who came up with the idea, it’s about what the idea is. I have learned to hone this skill through my freelancing and creative collaboration years. “That’s a much better idea!”—I proclaim when I think I’m beaten. Or, “going back to what you were saying earlier...”, is another. Learn to let go of your babies and pick the right battles. Your collaborator will love it. It shows you aren’t in it for yourself, you have the ability to pinpoint and single out a good idea (even if not perfect), and most importantly it shows passion for the process. I like to think of a seed and watercan analogy here—your collaborator plants a seed, and you help it grow. 

The journey will always be more important to me 

As the headline of this article suggests, creative collaboration is a lifelong process. Come to think of it, we as humans will never master the art of being ‘perfect partners,’ in any walk of life. Marriages, relationships, friendships, business partnerships, collaborators—we are always learning, all the time. 

I suppose I’ll end this piece with one final tip. When you ignite a new collaboration with someone, use it as an opportunity to become a better creative and a better person, even if it doesn’t work out. The art of collaboration is a free university. Don’t waste it.

Photographer credits:

Preview Photo: Anthony Shkraba
Image 1: Yan Krkov
Image 2: Olia Danilevich
Image 3:: Pixabay