2.8 Approaching Conversations Collaboratively Rather Than Competitively

Put very simply, you can adopt one of two mind-sets when dealing with other people. By adopting a positive mind-set, you can choose to cooperate and collaborate in order to achieve a win-win outcome. Select the negative mind-set, however, and the interaction becomes a competition. In this case, other people are regarded as the ‘enemy’. While there are times when the negative mind-set is appropriate, mostly it’s not. Steering conversations along a collaborative route is an important aspect of the Conversation Manager role.

a. Two ways of dealing with interactions

Evolution seems to have provided us with two distinct mind-sets for dealing with interpersonal situations.

One mind-set (positive) is geared for collaboration, mutuality and co-operation. This is the mind-set that’s ‘switched on’ when you’re working as part of a team, for example, or in partnership with someone. It’s the mind-set you slip into when you’re interacting with someone you see as being on the same side as you, as having interests in common with you.

The other mind-set (negative) is geared for dealing with the enemy (real or perceived). It fosters feelings of suspicion and wariness, and is entirely appropriate when dealing with people whose interests clash with yours or whom you have genuine reasons to distrust or fear. It switches into action as soon as one’s fight or flight mechanism is triggered by a sense of danger or the need to be wary. This instinct is hard-wired into our nature at a very deep level.

The problem is that many people, perhaps the majority, default very readily into the negative mind-set (perhaps evolution favours suspicious people) and thus tend to approach a lot of their conversations as a form of competition.

b. The win-win approach

Another way of looking at the differences between collaborative and competitive conversations is in terms of their likely outcomes. The phrase "win-win" comes from game theory and refers to solutions, which are good for both parties. In conversations we often have a chance to choose between (a) an I-win/you-lose, approach, or (vice versa), (b) a lose-lose approach, or (c) a win-win approach.

Sometimes the opportunity to choose comes and goes so quickly that we make the choice by default. That is, if we typically manage relationships in a win-lose fashion, we will continue to do so almost by reflex, even when there is a better choice to be made. The better choice is not even recognised as an option because we tend to do what we usually do.

In good conversations both parties get the opportunity to express their points of view, explain their needs, and make their thoughts and feelings clear. The partners help one another do so. Selflessness characterises effective dialogue.

An unsatisfactory conversation, on the other hand, feels more like a game of table tennis. The aim is to score points, for one person to win at the other's expense. You are competing rather than co-operating and this does little to promote dialogue.

What about competition? Some people hate it and say that it should be banned from human transactions. Most find a role for competition in life. The world is filled with win-lose games. But competing in conversations - other than formal or informal debates where it’s clear to both parties that winning is part of the game - does little to set a supportive climate for dialogue. Years ago, Eric Berne recognised this in a book called Games People Play (1964). He pointed out how gamesmanship in conversation - and he discusses many different kinds of games - can hobble, and even destroy, relationships.

Since dialogue is highly unlikely — if not impossible — if the prevailing mind-set is negative, a continuing concern for you, in the conversation manager role, is staying aware of where the conversation is sitting on the spectrum, from genuinely collaborative to outright competitive.

c. How to handle competitive conversational partners

If your conversational partner is, in your mind, playing the conversation to win, then what should you do?

Letting the other win is problematic because it encourages the other to continue to play games. Getting into the game and doing your best to beat the game player is also problematic because you have moved away from a win-win approach. Finally, leaving the field, just calling it quits, is problematic because no engagement means no learning.

One of the best approaches to game playing is to call ‘time out’ and do your best to reset the conversation on a win-win basis. "We seem to playing games with each other. Maybe we should stop and see what we want to accomplish and how to go about it." Is this always possible? Of course not. But even attempting to reset the conversation lets the other know where you stand.

Someone will undoubtedly say, "That stuff about questioning competition. Nonsense. The world is built on competition. Always has. Always will be. Get real. The world is not as nice as you are painting it here. Nor should it be."

Fine. Human beings will always compete. In some ways competition brings out the best in people. They push themselves to learn and achieve in ways they would not in a non-competitive environment. There is competition in all the settings of life. How we compete is another issue. Competition that is based on such things as back-stabbing and game-playing runs counter to the values described here. But, you have a choice. Winning in conversations inevitably has a negative impact on relationships. So, how important are relationships to you?

Life often has an ‘edge’ to it. Pursuing these values with an edge at times doesn’t mean that we don’t subscribe to them.

You can show me respect without being ingratiating and I can show you respect even when I place legitimate demands on you.

I can demand that you take responsibility for your part of a conversation and you can do the same with me, while maintaining mutual respect.

On the other hand, we can be bland - read ‘nice’ - and not live these values at all. Some people would even say that it’s impossible to pursue the values outlined here without an edge. We can be testy and bicker and still respect one another. Family members do it all the time.

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