Why Conversations Break Down: Episode 3, Zero-Sum Dialogue

Last week, we introduced Time Travel as a source of conversation breakdown, our habit of traveling back in time and responding to what happened in the past, as opposed to what is actually happening right now.  

This week, it is our tendency to shift into Zero-Sum Dialogue that gets us in trouble.

My Views on Important Issues

I’d like to begin by stating my personal positions on several extremely controversial topics. This is a risky move; I get it. The views I’m about to share could forever alter your opinion of me, possibly for the worse. Yet, I have weighed the pros and cons carefully, and ultimately decided this was a risk worth taking, and essential to making my point.

Consequences be damned, here we go:

  1. Oxford commas, yes or no? Unequivocally yes. I cannot comprehend being so reckless with punctuation as to intentionally omit an Oxford comma.
  2. Should toilet paper unroll over the front, or around the back? There are two types of people in this world: those who understand that toilet paper should unroll over the front, and those who are wrong!
  3. Should milk be poured over a bowl of cereal, or should cereal be poured into a bowl of milk? Before beginning my research for this article, I was unaware that this was in question. My world got a little darker when I learned that there are people out there who believe that filling a bowl with milk first, and then pouring cereal into it is an acceptable way to live (with the obvious exception that pouring a second helping of cereal into the remaining milk and then topping it off with more is completely appropriate). I apologize for shaking your faith in humanity if you are hearing of this atrocity from me first.

There you have it. If, after learning where I stand on these issues, you feel like you can read no further, I understand. Frankly, I’m not sure I want a comma-skipping, toilet paper roll-reversing, cereal/milk-inverter reading my newsletter. Is there hope for reconciliation? I’m not sure.

If You’re Still With Me…

Now, while those really are my current positions on these three issues and they seem unlikely to change, in truth, my emotional attachment to topics like punctuation and toilet paper might have been slightly exaggerated.

Yet, even so, if I were to enter into a discussion with an Oxford comma denier, I would have to be very careful, because I know I would be vulnerable to a subtle shift, an almost imperceptible change in my motive from a desire to understand, to wanting to WIN.

A debate over the use of the Oxford comma, a seemingly inconsequential topic, could very easily devolve into Zero-Sum Dialogue.

What is Zero-Sum Dialogue?

No doubt you have heard the term “zero-sum game,” but what does that really mean? In game theory, “zero-sum” means exactly that: add up the gains and losses of all the players, and they always equal zero. For me to win, you must lose and vice-versa.

The same applies in a Zero-Sum Dialogue. It happens all the time. Often without realizing it, we find ourselves no longer arguing to find the best answer. Instead, we are arguing to win, and to win a zero-sum dialogue, the other person in the conversation must lose.

What is “Winning?”

What would it even mean for me to "win" the Oxford comma debate? How would I know I had won? What would leave me feeling satisfied? Well, I would obviously want you to change your comma-careless ways, but if I’m honest, I’d want more than that.

What I really want is to feel RIGHT, and for you to know you are WRONG. I would want you not just to change your behavior, faithfully placing commas before the coordinating conjunctions in every series of three or more items, but also to change your flawed beliefs to match virtuous ones. Forever. I would want you to confess your sins, and demonstrate contrition for your failure to see my righteous truth.

Winning would include your declaration to the world, “I have lived a life of crimes against commas, but now I have seen the righteousness of Greg’s punctuation Truth.

In winning, I would feel justified mocking you by pointing out the absurdity that results when we forego the Oxford comma, like, “I went to Maine to see my parents, a moose and Stephen King.”

To feel I had won, I would want to hear an impassioned plea of “how could I have been so WRONG?!”

Be Honest…

That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but if we’re honest, it’s also kinda true. In a zero-sum dialogue, we want to win and be right, and winning and being right means we want the other to realign their beliefs, validate our righteousness, and admit how terribly wrong they were to ever believe otherwise.

Why It Doesn’t Work

Here’s the problem: that’s NEVER going to happen. It is a fantasy. A part of us wants the other person not just to admit they were wrong, but to feel bad about failing to recognize you were right. If we’re really honest, we feel a little superior in our beliefs and positions, and in this Zero-Sum Dialogue, that demands that the other feel inferior.

No sane person wants to feel that way, so the harder you push to win, the more the other person is going to dig in their heels to avoid losing.

Joking aside, imagine how this plays out on issues that matter. Our unrealistic need to "win," have others adopt our views, and admit they were wrong can lead to intractable conflict. Do you really expect the fifty-ish percent of the U.S. population who hold political views different from yours, for example, to someday just admit that they are wrong?

When the conversation about important issues is framed as Zero-Sum Dialogue, intractable conflict is the inevitable result.

How do we avoid Zero-Sum Dialogue?

  1. Are you conversing, or competing? If I pay close attention, I can sometimes feel the moment when I’m no longer listening to understand. I’m listening for vulnerabilities and weaknesses, because I am now competing to win. Notice this shift. Remember the futility of the Zero-Sum Dialogue, and re-open yourself to real listening.
  2. Find a better game. In his book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, author James Carse proposes the idea of infinite games as opposed to finite (zero-sum) games. In an infinite game, the goal is not to win or lose, but to keep playing. Reframe your zero-sum conversations as infinite games, where the goal is to stay in the conversation, deepening your shared understanding, allowing compromise, and fostering real communication and collaboration for the long haul.

Conversations break down for many reasons. We have considered three common causes, Impliference, Time Travel, and Zero-Sum Dialogue. Watch out for these three and their many cousins, because as we shared in the beginning of this three-part series, if we cannot be in conversation together, we cannot really be together at all.

We would love to support you in your most important conversations. Bringing people together in one of our workshops is a great way to get started. And as always, if you found this helpful, pass it along to someone else who might benefit.


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