“At work, we get rewarded for being competitive but when we come home,
we are told we should stop this behavior.”
Being in competition with your partner is not only unhealthy, it is dangerous and pointless.
You may be saying, “Me? In competition with my wife? Ridiculous.” Yet most of us do this to some degree. As men, we are programmed to be competitive, almost from birth. Winning is important. Crushing the opponent is better. That works on the sports field, but not at home. Have you found yourself guilty of any of the following?
- Trying to win an argument with your wife at all costs
- Controlling the agenda on family conversations
- Correcting your partner or others on minor details
- Interrupting or talking over your partner or others
- Insisting on having the last word
What’s a man to do?
At work, we typically get rewarded for being competitive except on teams, but when we come home, we are told we should stop this behavior–which is as natural to us as breathing? The answer is: YES. Granted, that is a tall order. But competition with someone in an intimate relationship kills closeness, damages trust and shreds some basic notions about intimacy. How can she feel snuggly toward someone who just slammed a winning volley at her expense?
What is the alternative? Collaboration and cooperation. That demonstrates unity, not one-upmanship. It means being on the same side of the negotiating table working to solve a problem common to both of you. Making the problem the opponent instead of each other.
Maybe some comparison of potential conversational phrases would help:
I think this is what we ought to do.
What ideas do you have about solving this problem?
You are dead wrong about that. Here’s why…
I see that differently. Can we talk about it?
Here are the facts about this.
How do you see this?
You’re not being logical about this.
I’m interested to learn how you came to that point of view.
I’m sure you can see the difference in the phrases above. The second options are much less arbitrary and final-sounding. They are much more collaborative and problem-solving, implying some willingness to be influenced. I have heard guys say these responses sound wimpy. It does take some adjustment. It is critical to learn which phrases open and extend a conversation and which phrases close it down.
Maybe an actual example is in order: Have you ever caught yourself keeping score with your partner on who did what? Who did the most housework or some other chore? Sometimes it is more subtle such as outdoing each other in conversations with others, scoring “points” at the partner’s expense. (“I tried to tell her the right way to do that.”)
A magic phrase almost always: “I’m interested in you you see this.”
The reasons to be collaborative in a close relationship are obvious, I hope. The question is: Why, as men, is that approach less natural or even acceptable for most of us? In other words, why is that approach not always our default choice? We are simply not conditioned to operate that way in our culture. In fact, just the opposite. Being forceful and definite seems to be part of our DNA. Even in everyday negotiation at work, we can get criticized if we “leave money on the table” or “don’t have a winning strategy.” Winning isn’t just a good thing, it’s the only thing, presumably said legendary Coach Vince Lombardi.
This brings us to a serious question: What is winning? Is winning crushing the other person? Getting your way? Prevailing in the argument? Or is it demonstrating that you value the relationship above ANY issue that might come up? Is it being so concerned about the other party, that you put your needs on hold while you honestly try to hear the other person’s needs or concerns? Is it going for a win-win solution? An emotionally intelligent definition of winning rearranges priorities in a way that makes sense. (Incidentally, in negotiation, there are two negotiables: terms and relationship. If you are never going to see that person again, then it is safe to go for the best terms possible. But if you have to live with that person, relationship trumps terms.)
Does it sound wimpy and mushy to you to be collaborative? Even vulnerable? Does it go against everything you have been taught about being a man? That is very possible. In that case, you might decide a) you’ve got work to do, or b) that’s not something you can/will do. To a lot of men, this feels like wholesale giving in to your partner/opponent. Wimping out.
Are women more collaborative?
There is a fair amount of research that suggests that women are more naturally collaborative/cooperative than men.1 That makes sense. For most of human history women for the most part had to negotiate to get their needs met because, typically, they were dependent on the generosity of men who held the power. So maybe that is why it seems “unmanly” for men to adopt this approach.
Unless you are a cave man, collaboration seems to work better in today’s environment of power sharing and joint decision-making. It is
just more courteous and gentlemanly and the right thing to do at work or at home. As for concern about appearing unmanly, I submit that far more people (of either gender) find this collaborative approach more appealing than not.
As for collaboration in the board room, women have made dialogue more inclusive and less abrasive.2 Their communication skills and risk aversion are credited with heading off costly decisions while inspiring more studied, deliberate approaches. An executive friend of mine calls this “going fast by going slow,” meaning that decisions made without everybody’s buy-in often are not sustainable and tend to come unraveled.
Will you change?
Here’s the question: Do you feel the need to remodel your communication style to lower the “competitive” voltage? Not everyone needs to work on this, but my experience is that all of us can improve our collaboration skills and the communication that goes with them. Managers as Facilitators suggests that collaboration is connected directly to successful leadership.3 If you are ready to give this serious consideration, study the questions below and look over the resources in the back of the book.
Just as an FYI: There are professional instruments which measure competitiveness. Counselors or consultants can put you in touch.
Another failed relationship?
It is worth asking whether you have had multiple relationships that all ended the same way. She did or did not do X or she ignored your need of Y. Whatever. It is important to ask what your role was in the breakup. It is doubtful that multiple women ALL had the same problem. Perhaps the problem is something you are doing or not doing. Perhaps competing without being aware of it, perhaps something else. Nonetheless, it is worth an honest investigation. This is how we learn to truly love.
And in a discussion with your partner, if you are harboring thoughts of “I need to win this one” you will never get to the point of making her feel loved and cherished. That’s sad because you will be missing most of what she has to offer.
As men, almost from birth, we are conditioned to be competitive. We get rewarded for this in sports and usually at work. But competition does not work in close relationships and if we “compete” with our partner to the point of needing to prove ourselves, we damage intimacy. Being more collaborative requires us to abandon some ideas about competitiveness. Not everything is a sports game to be won. Winning may need to be defined differently. The language we use is a good barometer of the competitive messages we are sending.
The Balanced Approach
It is expected that we will be competitive on the sports field, but we should look for and try to get rid of any evidence of that in our close relationships. Sometimes blaming our spouse can be a form of competition (“I’m right about things more often than she is”).
- Have you found yourself knowingly trying to “win” arguments with your spouse/partner?
- Do you feel “wimpy” or “unmanly” using collaborative/power sharing approaches?
- How do competitive tactics harm close relationships? Have you experienced this?
- Do you agree that “winning” needs to be re-defined? How would you define it in your important relationships?
- Have you been guilty of damaging relationships in your attempts to win?
- Have you been the victim of a competitive, heavy-handed approach? How did it feel?
- Do you feel hurt or angry if someone else’s idea wins over yours? Why?
- At work, have you ever “won the battle but lost the war?” What happened?
- In what areas are you fiercely competitive?
Action Steps Men Can Take
- Ask your partner for feedback on this issue, and listen patiently for the response.
- Ask one or more trusted associates at work for feedback about your style. Include a female.
- Get a book or video that deals with collaboration or communication style. Or get yourself tested by a professional.
- Honestly ask yourself where you got your ideas of winning and losing? Are you willing to change them?
- Why is competition bad for relationships? What do you need to do differently?
- Define for yourself: What is a good definition of winning?
- Invite your partner to call out incidents where competition may be creating conflict in the relationship.
- Every negotiation includes elements of emphasis on relationship or terms. Winning on terms that are too harsh will damage a relationship.
- Record your commitments on the Personal Action Plan on page 194.
Action Steps Women Can Take
- Discuss this with your partner. Ask if he is okay with your pointing out when he could be more collaborative, inclusive.
- Read up on this topic and share your research with your partner.
- Talk to a trusted friend about this topic (do not criticize your partner to someone else).
- Keep a diary of your own comments that are less than collaborative.
- Be aware when you feel competition is happening in conversation with your man. Talk about it later.
- In putting your ideas forward, focus on the win-win possibilities (vs. tearing down the opponent).
- Don’t just drop the issue when there is some disagreement; instead, explore your man’s reasoning behind the position he is taking.
- Keep in mind he has been conditioned since youth to be competitive.
- If your partner already demonstrates a good model in this area, tell him directly.
|Defining Winning….Winning will need to be defined differently in different situations. Here are some guidelines for developing win-win outcomes:
· Must be custom to each situation
· Must be collaborative, include all parties
· Must be sustainable over time
· Must be fair to all
· Must be flexible as conditions change
· Must be realistic and practical
· Must share power appropriately
· Must leave all parties feeling whole, satisfied
· Need not be equitable, simply agreed