Mutual enrichment rather than victory

This weekend, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about arguments. We both dislike them. Instead of getting fired up to state our positions well, we both start wishing we were somewhere else.

When people disagree about something in a conversation, any statement will exhibit either inquiry or advocacy. Inquiry involves asking questions to find out more about the other person’s point of view. Advocacy involves making statements to defend or advocate for one’s own point of view.

Obviously both are needed as the conversation unfolds so that one person is inquiring and learning while the other is advocating and teaching. Things go awry in a number of ways. Sometimes there is an unevenness in terms of give and take — one person never stops advocating so the other is doing all the learning — and feeling frustrated because he/she speaks because the other person doesn’t seem to listen. Sometimes both sides are tied up in too much advocacy — each side mentally rehearsing his/her next argument while the other advocates.

Marcial Losada

Marcial Losada

Emily Heaphy

Emily Heaphy

Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy (2004) report on research based on observing and coding the speech acts of 60 work teams in the middle of annual planning. They calculated the ratio between 3 bipolar opposites as they occurred during the meetings: inquiry versus advocacy, positive versus negative, and other versus self.

Then they sorted the teams according to business performance.

They observed the following ratios for inquiry versus advocacy:

  1. High-performing teams (N=15): 1.143 inquiry to advocacy
  2. Medium-performing teams (N=26): .667 – These teams generally started out with a more even ratio which dropped when they faced major difficulties.
  3. Low-performing teams (N=19): .052. That works out to 20 advocacy statements for every inquiry statement.

My friend and I talked about inquiry and advocacy, and what we’ve observed in the arguments that we like and dislike. My friend summarized it thus, “I prefer mutual enrichment to victory.” But we both agreed that not everybody feels or behaves that way. When arguing with someone who prefers victory, we both just want to escape. I feel somewhat vindicated by the Losada and Heaphy’s data.

On occasion, I’ve been the mediator between groups with conflicting goals. When we’ve been successful finding an acceptable middle ground, it always follows some form of positive emotion and an agreement on both sides to allow themselves to be changed by what they hear.


Here’s a wonderful statement from the section in the Losada & Heaphy paper (2004) called Qualitative Observations:

Qualitative observations of the teams showed that high performance teams were characterized by an atmosphere of buoyancy that lasted during the whole meeting. By showing appreciation and encouragement to other members of the team, they created emotional spaces that were expansive and opened possibilities for action and creativity as shown in their strategic mission statements. In stark contrast, low performance teams operated in very restrictive emotional spaces created by lack of mutual support and enthusiasm, often in an atmosphere charged with distrust and cynicism. The medium performance teams generated emotional spaces that were not as restrictive as the low performance teams, but definitively not as expansive as the high performance teams. They did not show the distrust and cynicism of low performance teams, but they also did
not manifest the mutual support and enthusiasm characteristic of high performance teams.”

Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 740-765.



Filed under Job Satisfaction, Relationships

2 responses to “Mutual enrichment rather than victory

  1. Jo

    I like the phrase: mutual enrichment rather than victory.

    It is also helpful to remember the butterfly loop. Inquiry and advocacy was one of the three characteristics Losada studied. They other two were positive/negativity ratios (which need to range from 3:1 to 11:1) and references to the external world and references to the group (which should tend to the external world).

    The group loops about. They will go through a phase to advocating negatively about themselves. A healthy group then loops back to inquiring positively about the outside world, for example.

    I am going to throw you a challenge. Do you know that wanting to be elsewhere (I sympathize) shows lack of confidence in the people you are talking wit?. It is heavy negative stuff to reject other people’s concerns, even implicitly! You are likely to be contributing to rigidity in the discussion . . . mmm?

    The point where you heart sinks is the point where you could remind yourself how you arrived at this discussion and why the relationship is not only important to you but a very positive one generally. Reminding yourself of what you value will show on your face (positively), affect the other person, and get the butterfly loop going again. Hey presto! More diversity in the way we approach the issue, whatever it is, and the greater chance of a satisfactory if not invigorating outcome.

    Challenge any good?

    And any one out there working on Losada’s model? I am looking for collaborators to build up a wiki on all its implications. Maths experts, systems experts, happiness experts – all welcome!

    Can’t see the link to my blog, so here it is
    and I’m Jo.
    Cheers – like the phrase and will use it!

  2. Kathryn

    Interesting challenge. Here are my thoughts.

    The desire to be elsewhere is an emotional response rather than a cognitive one. So wanting to be elsewhere isn’t implicitly ‘negative heavy stuff’, though acting on it might be.

    I think the right action depends on a lot of things. Is there a chance of reaching a win-win position, or is this an old old argument loop that hasn’t budged? I don’t take part in family arguments about the 2nd amendment, for example. Both sides have adamant positions with no interest in budging. Life is too short to invest much energy in the argument.

    But you have a great point. The urge for fight or flight is a signal of a win-loss game. So it’s a great time to consider whether one can change the nature of the game into a win-win one. Is it worth the energy? Arguments aren’t all equally important.

    Stimulating challenge! Thanks for chipping in.


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