Is Competition Really the Opposite of Cooperation?

In any negotiation training class, the concepts of “distributive “bargaining and “integrative” bargaining are invariably discussed. The former is viewed as a form of “competitive” bargaining in which for every gain that one party makes, the other party loses. It is a “zero sum” game in which a “fixed” pie is divided up.

In contrast is “integrative” bargaining in which the parties seek to find mutual gain by addressing each party’s needs and interests. They seek to cooperate by “expanding” the pie.

Typically, we think of these two concepts- competition and cooperation- as polar opposites. We will have one or the other but never both together. Well, in my attempt to be an active member of a book club, I am learning differently. In his book entitled , The Conflict Paradox  ( ABA and Jossey- Bass, 2014),  Bernard Mayer suggests that these concepts work in tandem; “… effective cooperation is motivated by competition, and… competition requires some form of cooperation.”  (Id. at 26.)

Using the well-known Prisoner’s dilemma as an example, the author examines how in the act of competition, we must cooperate to gain the most out of our negotiation. As he explains:

The basic concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is quite simple. Two players are asked to exchange messages that are either cooperative (let’s call this a “y” message) or competitive (an “x” message). Each must submit a message without knowing what the other has submitted, which results in four possible message combinations: yy, or both cooperative; xx or both competitive; xy or mixed; and yx or mixed. A yy message will yield a good outcome for both players, an xx message a poor  one for both, and a mixed message is a very good score for the x message (better than would be received in the yy situation) and a very bad score for the y message (worse than xx). …   (Id. at 32.)  

In terms of actual negotiation, this can be seen as a “Tit for Tat “strategy.   (Id. at 35-51.) Plaintiff starts the negotiation by making a “reasonable” demand. Defendant responds by likewise making a “reasonable” offer. (So far- tit for tat.)  But, let us suppose that Plaintiff’s next demand goes down by only $1.00 which for the sake of this example, we will deem to be “unreasonable.”  Defendant will counter in kind with its own “unreasonable” offer by adding only 50 cents to its last offer. This unreasonableness will continue back and forth until Plaintiff sees the light of day and starts making “reasonable “ demands again; in response, Defendant will become “reasonable” and match Plaintiff’s reasonableness.  Consequently, and hopefully, through this cooperation in their competitive or “distributive” bargaining, the parties will reach an amount that each can live with and settle the matter.

A more practical example that the author provides is a dispute with a contractor.    A homeowner hires a contractor to do some remodeling of her residence. The contractor advises that the job is complete but the homeowner is not so sure.  So, before paying the contractor the last amount due, she suggests that they walk through the project so that any questions that the homeowner may have, can be answered then and there.  The author notes that while on the surface , the homeowner’s comment may seem cooperative, in reality, it is also competitive in the sense that the homeowner is not going to pay the final amount due unless and until she is satisfied that the remodeling is indeed completed to her satisfaction.  (Id. at 26-27.)

So, in reality, every statement of cooperation has a hidden message of competitiveness, and likewise, every message of competition contains a hidden message of cooperation. We must cooperate to compete and must compete to cooperate.

…. Just something to think about.



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By |2017-05-13T07:43:29+00:00February 19th, 2016|Negotiation, Negotiation Strategy, Research|0 Comments

About the Author:

Phyllis Pollack
Phyllis G. Pollack, Esq. the principal of PGP Mediation (, has been a mediator in Los Angeles, California since 2000. She has conducted over 1700 mediations. As an attorney with more than 35 years experience, she utilizes her diverse background to resolve business, commercial, international trade, real estate, employment and lemon law disputes at both the state and federal trial and state appellate court levels. Currently, she is the in­coming chair of State Bar of California’s ADR Committee. She has served on the board of the California Dispute Resolution Council (CDRC) (2012­2013), is a past president and past treasurer of the SCMA Education Foundation (2011­2013) and a past president (2010) of the Southern California Mediation Association (SCMA). Ms. Pollack received her BA degree in sociology in 1973 from Newcomb College of Tulane University and her JD degree from Tulane University School of Law in 1977. She is an active member of both the Louisiana and California bars. Pollack believes that it is never too late to mediate a dispute and recommends mediation over litigation as it allows the parties to decide their own solutions.