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Competition and Connection

“Life did not take over the globe by combat,

but by…continual cooperation, strong interaction,

and mutual dependence among life forms.”

Dr. Lynn Margulis

Pioneering evolutionary biologist

Recipient, National Medal of Science


There is a combative nature to survival, captured most overtly by the world of competitive sports.

Trading on the brutal language of war, sports reporters describe how one team “pounds,” “annihilates,” “dispatches,” “eliminates,” “kills,” and “outduels” another.

This same mindset permeates business. The instinct to compete against and dominate others can be heard in the common success mantras of leaders:

“If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.”

“We’re number 1!”

We love the challenge, adrenaline, and idea of competing, keeping score, and being first. We’ve made winning central to our beliefs about financial prosperity (“More is better”), capitalism (“Beat the competition”), patriotism (“My country is the greatest”), religion (“My God is the true god”), college ("top of my class"), and even mating (“I won her over”).

I’m not a proponent of eliminating all competition. Like all living plants and animals, it’s natural for me to want to defend my life and genes against any perilous elements in my surroundings.

And of course, competition can be entertaining. Who doesn’t enjoy watching two pianists, gymnasts, or chefs giving their best efforts?

When competing becomes destructive

A degree of competition is natural, necessary, even fun. However, competitiveness --whether among siblings or between nations--can turn destructive. To what extent do failed marriages, businesses, and diplomatic efforts stem from unregulated competitiveness, selfishness, and greed?

Consider a more specific example: top business schools accept less than 10 percent of their applicants. Those who get in are not only smart, but highly competitive and therefore prone to the unbridled ambition that leads them to disregard relationships. The same competitiveness that propels bright students towards academic success appears to retard their ability to cooperate and connect with each other. One business dean told me, “Our top students see each other as threats.”

The same applies to the workplace, our communities, our families. Anything that goes too far creates a point of imbalance. If left unchecked, chronic competition can surely destroy our species from the inside out.

The medicine of connection

The medicine for this imbalance is connection.

We’ve been both intentionally and unconsciously schooled in how to compete, but how many of us have learned how and when to make meaningful connections with family members, co-workers, direct reports, partners? Yet, who can deny that those connections make us all stronger?

Connection is different from merely feeling close to someone. It’s based on a desire to understand and collaborate with others.

Connection requires a decision.

The effort to connect starts with wanting to know more about another person.

Psychiatrist Murray Bowen, whom I quote often, astutely wrote:

“One of the biggest illusions of life is that siblings know each other.”

Might the same be said of our work colleagues, life partners, children, and parents?How much more could we learn about the people around us if we were less convinced that we already know them?

I know of three reliable strategies that can promote greater connection between two individuals or within a family, team or group.

Three connection strategies

The first strategy - asking genuinely curious questions – focuses on learning something new about the other person.Curious questions about another clearly communicate a desire to strengthen a relationship.

The second strategy – undistracted listening – aids deeper understanding about what it’s like to be in another’s shoes. Undistracted listening comes from inner stillness.It’s the opposite of fidgeting, or nervously waiting for your turn to talk.Attentive listening promotes another’s self-disclosure.

The third strategy – revealing and defining self – builds a powerful bridge that allows others into your thoughts and feelings, enabling them to learn about you. In a healthy relationship, the doors of self-disclosure swing both ways.

Posing curious questions, listening without distraction, and revealing self to another require both will and skill.A person’s degree of persistence reveals their will. Once desire is established, it’s simply a matter of practicing the connection skills noted above.

Ironically, the willingness and ability to forge relationships of substance gives individuals, families, businesses, and nations a competitive advantage.

Some combat might be necessary to preserve integrity against the mischief of the world, but much of it comes from ego, greed, and unregulated reactivity.

There’s a better way, with a long track record.

Real victory comes when we cooperate, communicate, and connect.

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