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Winning at Communication

Ever since Morton Deutsch introduced the idea of “Win-Win” conflict management in the mid 20th century, we have become enamored with the word “win”.  But, in a world desperate for the sound-byte and the bumper sticker to instantly tell them what they need to know, people have become tuned out to the subtle complexities of winning.

And thus develops “Ping-Pong” communication.

Ping-Pong Communication

You’ve all seen and heard arguments where statements are batted back and forth until someone scores the big winner. I have chosen to use the table-tennis analogy to describe this phenomenon, owing to its rapid-fire nature, but tennis will also do.

And, like tennis, there are many ways to win a point in an argument. You can force an error from your opponent or they can commit an unforced error, you can drill a passing shot right by them, you can blast an overhead smash across court or you can do a sneaky drop shot just over the net. I don’t want to bore you with long descriptions of each of these (especially given our time-poor days and desire for the bumper sticker!!), so I’m hoping you grasp the reference. The passing shot is a statement that is un-returnable; something so devastating that your “opponent” (there’s a problem with that word for a start!) simply can’t get it back at you. The smash is a very aggressive form of that passing shot that often comes with some abuse or insult or some form of threat. The drop shot (now often referred to as a “mic drop”) is a calmly-delivered comment, or a snide remark, often accompanied by a shrug, that allows you to raise your eye brows and sashay away, feeling sassy.  The forced error comes as a result of you pounding away at them, such that they capitulate and, of course, the unforced error is when they make a statement that they instantly recognise as being unsupportable, whereupon they throw their hands in the air and give in.

The interesting thing is that a lot of people view those passing shots as the goal. After all, they come with a very pleasing little surge of dopamine and we feel damn good about ourselves. Just thinking about those passing shots might be making you feel good as you read this.


When our ego gets involved we tend to go into self-protection mode and look for the win, rather than resolution. It is quite difficult to just sit loose in the saddle when our self-worth is being dented and our system starts filling with cortisol. It takes a lot of practice to achieve calmness and balance in those moments.  If a win doesn’t seem likely we might start to plan a face-saving retreat, using one of the aforementioned tennis shots. (Then we drop the mic and enjoy the dopamine!!) Simply put, your ego makes you want to play communication ping-pong.

Consider this idea, just for a moment ... when someone bats their ball at you across the net, simply catch it and calmly place it on the table in front of you and don't bat it back.

Now you’re performing mature, balanced, ego-free conflict management!! Congrats!

Goals in Conflict

When you’re engaged in an uncomfortable discussion or conflict situation, try to think of two goals in the moment.

1.     Create Change / Action

2.     Maintain the Relationship

1. Create Change / Action – People get upset and angry (anxious, frustrated, impatient etc.) when they want / need things to change and so our goal is to look for some action to create that change. Hence the oft-heard phrase, ‘What are you going to DO about it?’ People want something done. That’s usually true in an argument. Imagine a scenario from your own workplace – a customer / patient / student / passenger / client is angry at you for some reason (product not available / prices went up / service is late / didn’t receive what they ordered etc.) What do they want? Change and action to achieve that change. You know, even though they have most likely approached you in a less-than-appropriate manner, you and your organisation probably want the very same change to take place! A customer got the wrong sized shoes and is angry. YOU want them to have the correct shoes, too. A passenger is angry at the delayed service. YOU want the service to be on time, too. So, you’re already on the same page.  HOW we communicate that really matters, which brings me to point number 2.

2. Maintain the Relationship – You want to communicate in a way that does not harm the relationship into the future. Without going too far into it, there is short-term and long-term conflict management. In playing one of those tennis passing shots we might fix the situation in the short term BUT we’ve inevitably done some damage in the long run … animosity now exists between you. Long term conflict management considers that you WANT that customer to come back to your store, you WANT that patient to attend at your health clinic, you WANT that student to learn at your educational facility, you WANT that passenger to ride with your public transport system and you WANT that client to use your professional services again in the future. On a personal level, you probably want to keep your husband / wife / girlfriend / boyfriend / partner / friend / relative, too. (If not, that’s another story!)

SO, you MUST determine the best way to create that change while you manage the relationship. The first step is to avoid the back and forth of ping-pong communication.

That might require to understand the nature of conflict. Determining why the person is actually angry (people get angry for different reasons and with different outcomes in mind) is vital. But that’s for another day :)


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