When people are collaborating or working in groups, there is sometimes ambiguity about where things (like policy decisions, research briefings, proposals) have come from, and who is speaking for whom. If you are convening a collaboration (or being a “backbone” organisation) this can be especially sensitive. Collaborating organisations may think that when you say “we”, you mean “we, the convenor team” when in fact you mean “we, all the collaborating organisations in this collaboration”. Or vice versa. This can lead to misunderstanding, tension, anger if people think you are either steam-rollering them or not properly including them.
Who are 'You'?
In general, think about whether to say “you” or “we”. When you use "you", there's a very clear divide between yourself and the people you are addressing. This is often going to be unhelpful in collaboration, as it can reinforce suspiscions that the collaboration is not a coalition of willing equals, but somehow a supplicant or hierarchical relationship.
Who are 'we'?
“We” is clearly more collaborative, BUT the English language is ambiguous here, so watch out!
“We” can mean
‘me and these other people, not including you’
(This is technically called ‘exclusive we’, by linguists.)
‘me and you’ (and maybe some other people).
(‘Inclusive we’, to linguists.)
If you mean ‘me and you’, but the reader or listener hears ‘me and these other people, not including you’, then there can be misunderstandings.
For this reason, it can be helpful to spell out more clearly who you mean rather than just saying ‘we’.
What might this look like in practice?
These are examples from real work, anonymised.
In a draft detailed facilitation plan for a workshop, the focus question proposed was:
"What can we do to enable collaborative working?”
It was changed to:
“What can managers in our respective organisations do to enable collaborative working?”
The ‘we’ in original question was meant to signify “all of us participating in this session today” but the project group commenting on the plan interpreted it as “the organisers”. The new wording took out ‘we’ and used a more specific set of words instead.
A draft workshop report contained this paragraph:
“We do not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes we want.”
This was changed to:
“[XXX organisation] does not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes agreed by [YYY collaboration].”
Both uses of ‘we’ were ambiguous. The first meant ‘The convening organisation’. The second meant ‘we, the organisations and people involved in agreeing outcomes’.
The changes make this crystal clear.
Cometh the "our"
The same ambiguity applies with ‘our’. For example, when you refer to “our plan” be clear whether you mean “[Organisation XXX]’s plan” or “the plan owned by the organisations collaborating together”.
This post was originally written by Penny Walker, in a slightly different form, for a Learning Bulletin produced by InterAct Networks for the Environment Agency as part of its catchment pilot programme.
For more exciting detail on 'clusivity', including a two-by-two matrix, look here.