conflict > competition: how everyone can win


Competition is fun (and profitable) when it comes to sports, but when you’re dealing with people, whether it’s in professional or personal relationships, there is no winner when you’re in competition. It is unhealthy and nothing more than excess stress and anxiety.

Competition has proven to undermine performance in the workplace due to the mental and physiological stress it invokes.

So what’s the difference? Let’s consult Webster:

Conflict: competitive or opposing action of incompatibles: antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, persons, drives, wishes, or demands)

Contest: a struggle for superiority or victory

Competition: a contest between rivals

Now, let’s figure out where you’re encountering competition:

Are you in competition with people?

  • Do you find yourself constantly disagreeing with coworkers, friends, or family members?
  • Do you walk away from conversations angry, frustrated, or thinking “I’m right and they’re wrong!”
  • Do you always feel the need to have the last word?
  • Do you constantly compare yourself to others around you and feel jealous when you don’t measure up?
  • Does your fear of failure or not being the best at something keep you from trying new things — whether it’s a workout class or joining an unfamiliar team project?
  • Do you secretly want your coworker to fail at something so that you look better?
  • Does the thought of someone else getting a promotion, losing a dress size, or going on an amazing vacation make you envious?
  • Do you spend a lot of time on social media looking at what others are doing?
  • Do you enjoy hearing — or dishing out — the latest gossip?

It call comes down to: do you base your success off of how much “better” you are in comparison to others?

Or perhaps others around you are in competition with you. Do you deal with a person who:

  • Is a sore loser
  • Likes to rub any “wins” or accomplishments in your face
  • Always needs to have the last word — even if it’s just to tell you that the color of something is indigo, not blue…
  • Seems a bit too happy when he/she is better than you at something
  • Discounts your accomplishments
  • Always tries to one-up you: their days are worse than yours; you got an 98 but they got a 99; you had a date to a fun place but they hate a date at an even trendier/cooler spot…

Shift from competition/contest to conflict.

When you shift from competition to conflict, there are more possibilities; it’s no longer a 1-winner outcome, and all stand to benefit.

This isn’t about everyone getting along, or even everyone being happy with the outcome — though these are all benefits of said outcome. Rather, you should see this as an opportunity to get further ahead than you would alone, and to gain a competitive edge through the additional things you can learn when you open your eyes and ears to other points of view.

To handle conflict properly, all parties should enter it with constructive cooperation — failure to do so will simply turn it into a competition — which nobody wins from. Thing is, you can’t control how others enter the conflict — you can only control your role in it.

Your guide to constructive conflict

First and foremost, bypass the emotional barrier. When you’re entering conversations with opposing viewpoints, half the time, your (or the other party’s) brain is firing off all kinds of stress response hormones that subconsciously put everyone on defense.

The best way to get past it? Acknowledge it.

  • In yourself: feel like you want to rip the other person’s head off? Take a second to reflect: am I angry because a personal nerve is being struck? Am I frustrated because this person wants to do xyz when I want to do abc and I think yz conflicts with bc?
  • In them: let’s say the people you’re communicating with aren’t as wonderfully cognizant of the subconscious barrier as you are and therefore they don’t self-reflect. That’s ok — you can hear their subconscious even if they can’t hear themselves — just put yourself in their shoes: say to them “if I were in your position, I’d be frustrated by my bc because it conflicts with your yz. This can go two ways: 1) you’re right, and they see you as an ally to proceed (physiologically, the neurons in their brains go ahh, a friend, I can relax now) OR 2) you’re wrong, and they’ll definitely tell you, because nobody likes to be misread or mislabeled: “no actually, I’m not frustrated by bc, I’m angry about ab because I suggested it last week and nobody listened”

You can’t move forward until both parties feel seen, heard, and understood.

This does not mean reaching an agreement, but rather an understanding of the other positions. It means recognizing legitimacy in the way they feel, but not necessarily meeting agreement with their logic.

This process also helps with timing: if you haven’t bypassed the emotional barrier, you’re basically just talking to an adult toddler. No matter what you’re saying, you will not appeal to the logical part of the brain simply because the brain isn’t operating in the space of logic; it’s operating in that high-stress, high-reactivity mode.

Everyone have their big boy/big girl pants on now?

Now you’re ready to enter the constructive conflict arena: you’re out of the emotional reactivity phase and into an allied environment; you’re no longer fighting each other; you’re a team fighting the conflict at hand. BTW — if you still feel like you’re fighting each other, you’re not ready to logic yet. Get those emotions straightened out and then come back.

Your conflict weapons:

These are to use on the conflict as a team, not on each other to create conflict. Ok? Play nice.

Supportive communication (instead of defensive): speak from a place of acceptance and conscious curiosity. When they’re talking, you’re listening. You’re not thinking of what you’re going to say next. Everyone you speak to has something to teach you — you never know what the other party’s views can teach you — perhaps even improve upon your current plan.

Paraphrase (repeat) the opposing statement/idea in a neutral tone: rephrasing it in conversation will both make the other party feel heard and help you materialize it in your terms.

Look for the hidden need behind the other defense: maybe their xyz is the same thing as your abc, just in the order of bca… does that work for you? Then maybe it would work for them…

Do not use “you” statements; use “I/we” statements: “you” sounds accusatory — “I” and “we” make the other party comfortable. Which decreases the stress response… which keeps the logical part of the brain working, as opposed to the emotional… no toddlers here!

  • Example: WRONG Your plan won’t work because Team A needs this by X time and Team B relies on Team A, but you have Team B scheduled first.
  • Example: RIGHT I am concerned that since Team A needs this before Team B, we should have Team A scheduled first.

Your final goal should be understanding, not winning. Acknowledge that constructive conflict isn’t about deal making but rather solution discovery.

The only time competition is healthy is when it’s with yourself today (or tomorrow) and who you were yesterday.

CEO. Big fan of anything that supports people + planet.