The Zero Sum Relationship

Many relationships focus on winning arguments. There is a better approach.

Posted Dec 22, 2019

Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
Source: Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.

In my last post, I discussed mindful coupling. And in a post from nearly four years ago, I discussed mindful arguing. This post focuses on an aspect of arguing that occurs quite often, the perception of an argument amounting to a zero-sum game. 

For those unfamiliar with the term zero-sum, it is simply the idea that when one gains, the other loses. Most arguments are zero-sum. I’m right, you’re wrong, you win, I lose. This is how most arguments are approached, both parties with defenses up, feeling attacked (even at a minimal level), and attempting to prove their point. Even if defenses aren’t high, there is the idea of there being one right answer. A lot of relationships become zero-sum relationships, where the couple keeps track of who is “always right”. The issue is, often disagreements aren’t a zero-sum event, and relationships can benefit from a more mindful approach. 

Almost a year ago I heard a podcast that discussed this and made a note to write about it. Months passed, other ideas came, and this topic was put on a back burner. Luckily the podcast was rebroadcast, and as a subscriber, I sat through it again. I made notes and thought about how well it fit with my goal of focusing on mindful conflict resolution. The podcast is, “You’re not so smart”, and the episode was “How to talk to people about things”. 

The host David McRaney interviews Misha Glouberman, an expert on negotiating. Mr. Glouberman purports that often people invest in being right over solving the problem. He discusses one’s investment in his perception of reality. This relates to several of my other posts that focus on the philosophy that humans live in their own subjective reality. 

Mr. Glouberman provides an insightful anecdote about a father and his two daughters. There is only one orange left, and both want it. The father does what he believes to be fair and cuts the orange in half, giving both daughters equal parts. A while later he asks how that worked out. One daughter talks about how she wanted to make juice and only having half didn’t allow for much to be made. The other daughter tells how she was baking and the recipe called for an orange rind, but only having half of an orange rind didn’t work for her recipe. What was fair actually did not solve either problem. 

And herein lies Mr. Glouberman’s expertise. Throughout the interview, he suggests putting aside assumptions and asking questions. He indicates this is the key to finding what the person really wants and what is really important. This, like most things, is easier said than done. As I’ve written many times, the mind is a time-saving machine. It wants to conserve energy for unforeseen threats (most of which do not exist anymore) and tries to take shortcuts to get needs met. Actually slowing down and asking questions is much harder than it sounds. 

In one of the readings I teach in a class, the author divides conflict strategies into five animal-related categories: the turtle withdraws, the teddy bear soothes (gives the other his way), the shark does what it takes to get his needs met, the fox compromises (each party gives up part of what they want), and the owl finds a way that everyone’s needs are met fully. What Mr. Glouberman is teaching comes closest to the owl approach, which is much more time-consuming. Though one needs to be competent in all examples above (for example knowing when to withdraw or when to be aggressive and uncompromising), it seems preferable in intimate relationships to try to have everyone feel heard, understood, and that their needs are important. 

In one of the descriptions of Misha Glouberman I came across, he was described as taking a humanistic approach to negotiating. Throughout the podcast, I was reminded of the humanistic approach to therapy. In fact, to simplify this process one could just slip into therapist mode. Most people have naturally done this at some point in their life, perhaps when meeting a new partner, friend, or even acquaintance. Judgment is suspended, and a genuine interest in the person prevails. One asks questions and tries to gain a better understanding of the new human in front of him. Therapy contains a lot of these components (and more, of course). Active listening, attentiveness, interest, and unconditional positive regard are all therapeutic tools. As I said earlier, however, once we think we know someone, our mind takes short cuts based on assumptions. The orange anecdote is a good example. 

This whole approach to finding out what is important to someone, being engaged and attentive, actively listening, a detachment from one’s own interests, and dropping one’s own defenses, is a mindful approach. We are sometimes mindful naturally, and one of the goals of mindfulness is to bring those natural states into deliberate action more of the time, especially when they can foster better outcomes. So rather than arguing and trying to win or get your need met, take a mindful, humanistic approach to disagreements, really listen to your partner, and perhaps find a creative solution. 

Copyright William Berry, 2019


Johnson, D. (2009). Resolving interpersonal conflicts. In N.H. Goud & A. Arkoff (Eds.), Psychology and Personal Growth (234-236). Boston, MA: Pearson Education. 

McRaney, D., 2018. How to talk to people about things. From the podcast You’re not so smart. Retrieved from: