You Can Win By Losing

by Marc Winitz

A big part of managing any conflict involves knowing when to make a stand, dig in and fight for something, as well as yielding when it really is not worth it to take that course. There are always some people who feel like they have to come out on top or their “public persona” will be damaged if anything less than “looking right” or “being right” comes out of the situation. We all struggle with the need to be right. I have seen this apply to business relationships, personal interactions with friends or even intimate relationships with a spouse or significant other. But you don’t always have to be. And more importantly you can save yourself a lot of grief by recognizing those that do. In a lot of situations you can actually come out ahead simply by avoiding a conflict.

In a martial arts context this concept is called “winning by losing”. Most people automatically think that a highly trained black belt, with all the physical tools and fighting ability learned over many years, would always opt to fight their way out of situation, even one that physically threatens them. Interestingly enough that’s not the case.

Backed Into a Corner, but not Against a Wall
Years ago as a newly minted brown belt I was put in a very public situation with someone where the seemingly only outcome was a physical exchange. For me to have walked from the situation would be considered embarrassing by those around me. This person decided to pick on me (not knowing I was relatively accomplished in Karate) and was pushing for a fight as a way to prove his point. I would have “lost face” by not standing up to him to some. In this situation I made the determination that regardless of the personal issue this person had with me, my life wasn’t in any real danger. We weren’t going to sort out how was right and who was wrong either because he wasn’t being rational. It wasn’t worth fighting about so based on that I turned and literally walked away from the conflict.

Turning from Conflict – No Dishonor
Could I have come out on top had this situation escalated? Certainly I could have. As I walked away the person shouted personal insults. It must have made him feel better about himself. I just let the comments pass. His anger was misrouted and his comments were meaningless to me. I gained nothing by staying and facing off with him. Perhaps more importantly I was unconcerned with what others thought of me. I knew there was no dishonor by taking the action of walking away and not engaging. That goes against our typical cultural norm. But it took being the bigger person mentally and emotionally to walk versus escalate the conflict.

Itching For a Fight – 3 Know It Alls
I’ve identified three personality types that fall into this characterization and not all are necessarily worth engaging if you don’t need to:

1. I Am Never Wrong. We all know people like this. There are some that cannot be wrong about an issue no matter what is being discussed. This person is the class Smarty Pants. They are always right in their mind and you’re not. And it doesn’t even matter who “you” are. They are full of verbal bluster. People in this category often have toxic personalities.  Assess them and make a judgment of whether or not you really want to be around them.

Redirect Back Towards (not at) Them: I usually say “it seems like this is really important to you. I disagree with your point/argument but I understand it is important to you”. By saying this you are validating the importance of their position to them without conceding the actual argument. Or sometimes I win by losing simply by walking away from them. This is the hardest of the three characterizations to deal with because sometimes you have to deal with this person. They may be a boss, supervisor or someone you must work with. This is more of ongoing sparring match fighting for some issues and letting other things go.

2. What Do You Think I Am, Stupid? Someone is usually “saving face” when they act like this. Although this is a very “Eastern” concept, none of us enjoy looking stupid in any culture. In these kind of situations the person actually knows that that their point is incorrect, or perhaps they stated something upfront in a conversation that later was later exposed as factually wrong. But they’re going to keep arguing anyways. A “bigger” person will see this and correct themselves or say they misunderstood, providing some acknowledgment that there point/argument wasn’t correct. But a lot of people won’t do this which I find unfortunate.

Introspective Action: If this is you and you stated something wrong – own it and make amends. And in situations where you know the other person needs to save face, help them get out of the situation gracefully. One way to do this is simply to say “It’s understandable you are passionate about this point/argument it just seems that the facts show this differently from your initial discussion.”

3. Captain Argument We’ve all met him at one time or another. The Captain enjoys argument for the sake of doing it. This is probably the least “insidious” of the three categories because sometimes it is motivated by the person’s intellectual curiosity. That’s fine if that is all it is and both sides are up for it. The problem occurs when one person isn’t up for it making it an energy wasting exchange.

Let Them Sail On: For this type of person, assuming I do not feel compelled to really make my point stick, I just let them run their course. This person is basically harmless. Usually I’ll acknowledge their comments without validating them specifically saying something along the lines of “I hear what you are saying” or “That is certainly one way to look at this”.

There is a lot of gray to the point I am making here. I am not suggesting you always walk away from a situation when you encounter one of these personality types. But at least recognize the situation for what it is and then make a decision if you should “Win by Losing” as I describe here.

I’d like to hear your stories on situations such as these that you have been involved in because sometimes conflict isn’t avoidable. But a lot of the time it is. How did you handle them?

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