On Non-Zero Sum Interaction

(Epistemic Status: Endorsed af, what I actually aspire to do)

(Meta-note:  I apologize for the short post this week, I hope to have a fairly substantial one on a related concept next week)

What do business people, pick up artists, and con artists have in common? A deep desire to win at traditional success markers – money, sex, power – through social manipulation. Most social skills can be arguably a form of manipulation, but there are benign directions and malicious directions one can go with this…and one of the quickest ways to go malicious with conversational skills is trying to score points in a competitive game.

For those that have talked to me, I often talk about “winning” a social interaction, whether it be a party, a class, or a one on one conversation. What I mean by this is I’ve created value with my interaction style, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this framing is actively toxic to the stated goal. When I had interacted with the pickup artist, he mentioned that he usually is counting how many “points” he’s scoring when he’s running his game. Another example that I was discussing today was a multimillionaire who recently got in trouble for attempting to use a government position to seal a major deal – when he was asked why he was even bothering since he was likely to not live much longer and already had quite a bit of wealth, he responded saying that money was his way of keeping score in life. I don’t yet have any con artist stories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the reason con artists eventually get caught is because they’re trying to raise their “score” higher than they need to. The point is, “winning” as a frame leads to zero sum interaction, trying to hoard conversational flow and use it to self aggrandize.

I would rather consider my interaction style in an alternative fashion – non-zero sum interaction, where the explicit goal is to do whatever it takes to make sure everyone involved has a good time. Rather than winning, I want to have fun in a way that is unconcerned with how “interesting” I seemed or how well I “steered” the conversation. If “winning” is creating a story for my own narrative, having fun is creating stories for everyone’s narrative. I think it’s easy, once you notice how terrible monkey brain 1.0 is at dealing with social engineering, to fall into a pattern of denying the agency and preferences of others – to find fun only in competing, in keeping score. I think the more ethical, sustainable, and overall skillful approach is bringing the people you interact with you into agentic roles, having fun and using sociological knowledge to raise the conversational waterline.

Overall, I want to be a non-zero sum conversationalist. That’s really all there is to it. I’ve flirted with the dark side and I find it wanting. I hope others who have gone through realizations like my own feel the same way – if not, I hope this is persuasive.

Discussion questions: What conversational style is preferable for you, zero-sum or non-zero sum? What are good ways to approach non-zero sum interaction? Can you tell a story of when a skilled conversationalist has made you feel valuable rather than drab?

One thought on “On Non-Zero Sum Interaction

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