• Advice

"We need to talk" – How to break up with a collaborator

A partner can often be the greatest asset you’ll ever have as a freelancer. He or she may be a great champion of your work, ask all the right questions, help you approach things from a fresh perspective, and bring talents and insights to the table that you either couldn’t or wouldn’t have on your own.

But whether you’ve been collaborating with someone for years, or you’ve found yourself thrown into a single assignment partnership, there is often a point at which the relationship is no longer particularly beneficial or productive.

How you decide to call it quits is every bit as important as the realization that you need to call it quits. Here are five strategies for navigating that sensitive conversation:

1. Don’t obsess too much about the “wrong”

It can be tempting to obsess pointlessly on who’s really “at fault” – how often do we focus on blame when a collaboration goes south, or become more involved in the melodrama of a professional ‘break-up’ that is necessary?

Alternatively, we may overcompensate, becoming self-recriminatory about our own “wrongness” and resolving to “work harder” to make a stale partnership work. While both of these reactions are natural, you may end up expending scads of time, energy, and resources on a partnership that just... has run its course.

The truth is that nobody may be doing anything wrong, per se. But a collaborator should generally be making the process smoother, not more challenging, and if you and your partner are pulling in different directions, it might be best (and simplest) to just keep on heading in those directions.

2. Put yourself in their shoes

Thinking about the situation through from your partner’s perspective can free you up to take ownership of your own contribution to it. Respectfully acknowledging their feelings can be the best segue into an expression of your own. And, of course, role reversal helps you remain sensitive and kind (frustrated though you may be).

3. Be honest and decisive

Staying kind and sensitive doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t address the real issues at hand. Making this about anything other than exactly what isn’t working is a surefire way to find yourself in the same place tomorrow that you are today.

Say what you mean, and be very clear about the fact that the answer is a split, and not a negotiation. If you could have worked it out by making a couple of simple adjustments, you probably would have already.

4. Accentuate the positive

Always, always, ALWAYS acknowledge how much went right about the relationship: the projects that soared, the things you learned from working so closely with a fellow freelancer, etc. And be sure to play up your estimation of the strengths you think they will bring to future partnerships, and (perhaps more importantly) independent projects.

Heck, even something as inconsequential as hearing that his smile lights up a room or that her music tastes are enviably cool is likely to make your (about-to-be) former collaborator feel better about the split, as it won’t feel like a referendum on his or her merits as a person.

5. Leave the door open

It’s also important to realize that this may not be “goodbye”, so much as “see you later.” Perhaps you’ll never collaborate with this person again, but you never know. You both may change in ways that will make you perfect partners down the road.

Or maybe a particular skill set that brought little to the table now will end up being exactly what the client ordered in a couple of years time. Don’t say anything you’ll regret, because the freelance world is a small one, and we tend to cycle in and out of each other’s work lives with an almost alarming regularity.

Remember - you always want to be the kind of person who people want to collaborate with... even if you’re not currently in the market to collaborate with them!

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.

Kate Shea Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.