Competitive vs Cooperative Communication

Monday, April 18th, 2011 at 4:26 pm


Competitive  vs Cooperative

We are taught from the earliest of ages that good communication is imperative.  In both subtle,  and direct ways, we are taught to be competitive
when we communicate.  Simultaneously, we are told to be cooperative.  What an impossible task–to be cooperative and competitive at the same

The conundrum we are all faced with has its roots in two complex social environments: those having hierarchy structures, and those which do not.  Hierarchical institutions include schools, our family of origin, the family we create, workplaces, churches and government as the most common.  Within those institutions we learn the power of the politics and practice of competitive communication.

Part and parcel of those systems we learn the power of being right, winning, and fighting for what we believe in.  It is from within those hierarchical environments we learn that debate and argumentation can propel us up the ladders of success.  Within hierarchies we learn the art of both direct and indirect communication.  Whether or not we decide to learn or participate in competitive communication processes is very much dependent upon the degree to which we are conflict averse or not.    The less conflict averse we are, the more direct our communications tend to be.  The more conflict averse, communications may be less direct.

The one opportunity we have for a non-hierarchical relationship  is our marriage/partnership with our significant other. This is where, as I mentioned above, social environments become complex.  The intimate partners’ relationship is one that functions best when not hierarchical.  Problem is, by the time we reach significant other intimate relationships we have cut our communication teeth on competitive communication principles, techniques and lessons.  Therefore, we will likely employ them with our intimate partner, often ineffectively,  sometimes with disastrous outcomes.

Therefore, is there any reason we should not be having the relationship troubles we have given this backdrop?  We grow up being taught how, when, why and where to be competitive in our communications–just about everywhere.  We are told to be cooperative, but are taught with competitive means.   Furthermore, we understand the politics of hierarchical relationships far better than non-hierarchical relationships.  That in turn, leaves us ill prepared for marriage/committed relationships,  the one non-hierarchical intimate relationship we might develop.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that we create our own family, which clearly is a hierarchy, with the non-hierarchy of the partnership/marriage at its core.

What’s the answer?  Consciousness.  First, each individual in a couple, particularly those couples with children,  must become consciously aware of the differences between competitive and cooperative communication.

Second, put effort toward understanding how to create a non-hierarchical relationship in practice, not just theory.

Third, where children are involved, make an effort to practice cooperative communication principles between yourselves as parents as an example for children to emulate.

Fourth, correct the communication between the children when they are in conflict with each other and with you.  Recognize their tendency to be competitive, and  teach them the language of cooperation instead.

Below is a short version breakdown of each style;  judge for yourself which one you think might work best for you in a non-hierarchical relationship, that is, your
marriage or committed relationship, especially when conflict is involved. And remember, a conflict is a difference–not a fight!  A fight is what breaks out when
conflict is     mismanaged.


Adversarial–you vs me                    You each work together toward  common goals

Winner and a loser                                                No individual winners or losers–both “win”

Objective is to win vs being happy                     Objective is to understand each others experience

Objective is to be right  vs being happy             Objective is to learn (about the other, and ones self)

No resolution                                                          Resolution is paramount

Builds distance between partners                       Builds intimacy and closeness

No room for negotiation                                        Negotiation it is what it’s all about

Fundamentally rigid/inflexible                             Fundamentally flexible and open

Now, discuss these two very different styles with your partner just to see what you each think about the differences, and which one, or blend of the two, you each       tend to employ.

Next, explore the model your parents used when they were in conflict, and see if you can determine how what they did might have affected how you operate in your current relationship.

Wishing you a satisfying relationship,

Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT


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  1. I like your post.Cooperative communication allows there to be compromise which I think in turn builds confidence and trust in the relationship.I never really looked at argueing this way before but it is true, competition will wear on a relationship until it’s gone.Competitive communication though seems like a huge waste of time for me because nothing productive comes out of these conversations.Cooperative communication helps build a relationship with another person, it makes for a healthy relationship.relationships I’ve been in and are no longer a part of ended because of the fact that one of us needed to be right and were never willing to come to an agreement.

    Comment by familyroots — July 27, 2011 @ 6:17 am

  2. I appreciate your thoughts and letting others know about your experience. Another nice aspect of cooperative communication is that you don’t have have to come to an agreement–you can agree to disagree!
    More than anything else, the cooperative method lets each of you be HEARD! I have many women tell their husbands in my office during couples’ sessions that being heard actually leads to a better sex life.

    Comment by Dr. J. Hutt — July 27, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  3. Your post makes me think of the relationships that I have had and I can appreciate the competition and cooperative communication. I wish I had known about this before.

    Comment by Teresa — August 9, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

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