A battle of the wills

Here’s a question for you: When you and someone else have fundamentally conflicting preferences, each of which is equally valid, which one of you should come out on top?

Although at first this may seem like a binary question, I can actually think of four possible answers: 1) you; 2) the other person; 3) neither (i.e., you should avoid honoring either preference, whether by abandoning the situation or the relationship); or 4) both (i.e., try to find an outcome that takes into account both of your preferences without marginalizing either party).

I’m no social scientist, but it seems to me that most people fall fairly consistently into one of these four groups. Without telling you which of the four is mine, let me adopt the viewpoint of each in turn:

I should win (“It’s all about me”)

Look, if my preferences are equally valid (and of course they are), then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t come out on top here. Didn’t somebody once say, “You have not because you ask not?” It’s not that I’m not selfish; I’m just self-aware, and I might as well express myself. That way, even if I don’t ultimately get what I want, at least I’ll sleep better at night knowing that I made my preferences clear. And in any case, I’d expect no less of the other guy—it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, so there’s no use beating around the bush when it comes to talking about what I want! If I’m more expressive of my preferences, it’s probably because I care more about the issue in the first place… so I should definitely get my way.

Give the other guy his way (“Don’t be selfish”)

Let’s be real: there’s nothing special about me or what I want. It’s not that I don’t know what I want; I do. It’s just that there’s no reason why my preferences should be more valid than someone else’s. Asserting myself in a case where our preferences are different would just be selfish, and I don’t want to be like that. Sure, this situation is important to me, but there are more important things in the world, and getting all riled up about this one won’t do any good anyway. You have to choose your battles, after all, and we’re not talking life or death here. When it’s all said and done, somebody has to be the bigger person, right? I think I can do that in this case… it’s just not worth putting our marriage/friendship/business relationship on the line!

Nobody wins (“All for none and none for all”)

Really, if we have no reasonable way to choose between two equally strong preferences, then it’s only fair that neither of us gets what we want. After all, if that’s the case, letting either one of us have our way would just be unfair. In some cases, maybe this means that we should just walk away from the situation. If I want a black car and you want a white one, it’s not like getting a red car will make either of us happy, so we should just opt not to buy the car together. It’s better to cut your losses and quit while you’re ahead—there’s no point in even starting an argument over a set of preferences that are mutually exclusive and couldn’t really be resolved between us anyway. In some cases, this may even mean abandoning the relationship: if I’m Catholic and you’re Jewish and we both want our kids to follow our faith, perhaps we shouldn’t get married after all.

We can both win (“Let’s make a deal”)

This apparent conflict just represents a puzzle that we can solve together if we work hard enough. It might seem like there’s no way for both of us to get what we want here, but that just means we aren’t being creative enough. It might be that there is some third solution that appeals to both of us, even if neither one of us gets exactly what we want. There’s no need to abandon the situation just because our preferences seem opposed; maybe we’re just spending too much time focusing on the opposition and not enough time discussing reasonable alternatives. If I want a black car and you want a white one, maybe we’ve never stopped to consider how we’d each feel about a blue one—why think only in black and white? Even in situations in which the relationship is on the line, we can find a way to make this work: if I’m Catholic and you’re Jewish, we can educate our children in both of our faiths and let them take the best from both.

Now, each of these approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses.

The “me first” attitude may result in things going your way if you run up against an unassertive person, but could result in a big blowup if you encounter someone like yourself—and in most cases, you’ll run the risk of being perceived as selfish.

The “others first” attitude, by contrast, will usually result in things not going your way, and if you’re dealing with someone else like you, your conversation may quickly devolve into a “race to the bottom.” You’ll always be perceived as caring and unselfish, but deep down you’ll probably resent how infrequently you get your way, and the most perceptive people around you will pick up on this.

The “nobody wins” approach would probably be interpreted differently by each of the two types above. A “taker” would see abandonment of the situation or relationship as a lost opportunity for gain: why walk away when you could take the cake? A “giver,” by contrast, would see walking away as a way to protect himself and not be cowed into giving up what he’d really rather hold on to. In other words, this approach could be seen as a healthy, pragmatic recognition of the impossibility of agreement (i.e., What else could we do, really?) or as a disappointing failure to find an opportunity for collaboration where this may have been possible (i.e., Is it really true that only a black or a white car would satisfy each party?).

But here’s the kicker: the “compromise” approach, interestingly, would be interpreted in almost exactly the same way. A “taker” would again see it as a lost opportunity for gain: why get some of what you want when you could get all of it? And a “giver” would see a compromise as effective in protecting at least some of one’s own interests; it’s better to gain some of your preferred points than it is to walk away with nothing at all. Here, then, compromising could be seen as a pragmatic recognition that where disagreement seems impossible, give and take may result in at least some satisfaction for all (i.e., Isn’t compromise the most sensible way to handle this?) or as a weak response that leaves no one truly happy (i.e., If I believe that my faith is correct and yours isn’t, will I really be happy teaching the kids about both?).

To me, what’s most interesting about all of this is not the fact that these different approaches exist, but that each approach will tend to be viewed so differently by each of the other types. Whether I’m a giver or a taker at heart, I’m likely to be equally for (or against) walking away as I am for (or against) compromising, perhaps depending on how much of an optimist, realist, or pessimist I am. People’s perceptions of other approaches are so rooted in their own!

So after you’ve thought about which of these four types you might be, take some time to think about how your typical approach might be seen from the outside.

Who knows? It may just change your position in the battle of the wills…

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