Competition vs. Conflict

In another Parker Palmer-inspired post, I’d like to talk about a distinction Palmer draws in his book, The Courage to Teach.  While discussing the process of learning in community, Palmer draws a distinction between competition and conflict.  He writes, “Competition is a secretive, zero-sum game played by individuals for private gain; conflict is open and sometimes raucous but always communal, a public encounter in which it is possible for everyone to win by learning and growing.”  To elaborate upon Parker’s description, a competition mindset believes that in order for one side to win, the other (or all others) must lose.  A conflict mindset recognizes that not all sides want the same things, but also understands that one side’s win is not necessarily another side’s loss.

Palmer applies this distinction between competition and conflict to the world of learning and education, but I think it has wider applicability.  I think many of the problems our nation faces stem from a mindset of competition between individuals or interest groups in society rather than a mindset of conflict.  In so many areas, we see dualistic, competition-based logic: politics, culture war issues, economic issues, church policies, etc.  The list could go on.

In order for us to disagree more productively, I think we need to move past a competition mindset to a conflict mindset.  To do so requires not only changing how we think about disagreement, but how we think about a couple of other things as well.  There are two additional assumptions upon which I think competition thinking rests that I’d like to point out today.

The first assumption is a scarcity mindset as opposed to an abundance mindset.  Here, all resources are assumed to be scarce and limited.  When we assume that we’re fighting for a slice of a pie of a fixed size, then our win must be someone else’s loss.  I know I’ve written posts in the past critiquing modernity’s assumption that there are no limits to anything, but there are pitfalls to assuming there’s only a limited amount of desirable things to go around.  Of course, for some things there are only a limited amount: there are only a certain amount of government jobs or seaside properties.  But in many other cases, there are more than enough things to go around: sense of security, satisfaction, prestige, etc.  If we reject a notion of scarcity and believe instead in abundance, then our win need not be someone else’s loss if instead we find a way together to make the pie bigger.

The second assumption is a closed mindset as opposed to an open mindset.  This is a “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” attitude.  In a closed mindset, one is not receptive to being enriched by other sides in a debate.  One assumes one knows all that’s necessary to know and there’s no possibility of learning from or getting insights from others.  If one makes this assumption, then there must be competition rather than conflict because either your ideas prevail or the other side’s ideas do.  There’s no possibility for both sides learning and coming to a deeper understanding or finding a plan that incorporates positive aspects and insights from all sides.  Yet if one instead embraces a position of openness, it is possible to generate solutions to social positions that are better than any of the initial proposals because they use different approaches to refine one another.  Another way of saying this might be that a closed mindset takes an all-or-nothing approach, whereas a more open mindset is willing to seek compromise.

Compromise, it used to be said, is the spirit of American democracy.  You don’t hear that phrase thrown around as much anymore.  I wonder if that’s because we have become too stuck in a competition mindset, where we are not open to benefitting from other positions, instead seeing them as competitors for portions of fixed economic, social, and religious pies.  Yet we need not take such an attitude.  Another path is possible.  This other path is not without conflict, for that is endemic to the human race, but does believe that not all conflict need end with only one winner and all others as losers, that mutually beneficial compromise is possible.


Scott Tucker posted on July 13, 2012 at 12:16 am

First of all I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a
quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Kudos!

David W. Scott posted on July 13, 2012 at 10:54 am

Thanks, Scott! I’m usually mulling over my topics for a day or two before I actually write them down. Something will occur to me, and I’ll note it as a good blog idea, then after I’ve had a chance to think it through a bit, even if it’s just while I’m on the way to work or school, I’ll sit down and write. That way I have a good idea what I want to say before I sit down at the computer screen.

Brian posted on October 3, 2013 at 1:00 am

Interesting blog. I found this haphazardly because I am a student and considering the differences between conflict and competition. My own feeling is that competition implies a game with fair rules where losers end up more or less where they began and winners take home the prize. Conflict, to me, implies greater hostility, more severe consequences for the loser, and the removal of formal rules except those of nature. But I do find many of your points valid and insightful.

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