Zero-sum conversations

In a zero-sum game, there are Players who compete for Rewards, and there’s a finite amount of Rewards available. The more Rewards one person gets, the less there is available for others.

At the end of the game, the people with the most Rewards are the Winners.

(Why am I arbitrarily capitalizing things? Don’t know.)

Something that’s interesting is how often we create zero-sum game situations when they’re not necessary at all.

Like, in conversations.

A conversation isn’t — or at least doesn’t have to be — set up on a zero-sum framework. It can be, though. Here are three ways we turn conversations into a zero-sum game:

1️⃣ Interrupting others

By far, the most common example — both in frequency and universality — is interrupting someone. I mean, I don’t have any data on this; I’m basing it solely on the imperfect memories of my own experience. But let’s roll with it.

I’m guilty, I do this all the time, sorry to everyone who’s ever tried to have a conversation with me.

Interrupting is a good strategy if you think of a conversation as a competition between speakers, and the person who racks up the most moments of speaking (Speaker Points™️) within a single conversation is the Winner.

But that’s not what a conversation is at all, is it?

2️⃣ One-upping others

Another conversational zero-sum example: one-upping someone’s shared story or experience with your own story/experience.

This time it’s not necessarily about scoring the most speaking-moments but about having the most interesting or cool anecdotes, being the most impressive person in the conversation. It’s not a competition for time but for *awesomeness!* or something, like there’s someone standing off to the side making little tic marks on a notebook and at the end of the conversation, if you’re the one with the most Awesome! Points™️, you win!

What do you win?

Mostly the annoyance of the people who were trying to have a conversation with you.

3️⃣ Being a know-it-all

Another one: needing to constantly prove your intelligence.

Ugh. I do this a lot. I don’t like admitting ignorance. But what is the risk? What is the risk, in an everyday conversation, of admitting that you don’t know something?

Sure, in some conversations there is a genuine risk. Say, you’re interviewing for a job you really want and the interviewer asks you a pertinent industry question or something about your purported skillset. You don’t want to admit ignorance because you might lose something: the interviewer’s belief in how well you qualify for the job, and hence, the opportunity to take the job.

But in most situations, everyday conversations, casual verbal exchanges: what’s the actual risk in exposing the limits of your knowledge?

In fact, if conversation is actually not about Winning but is about, I don’t know, Communicating, then admitting your ignorance is a much better strategy for a successful conversation than pretending to know shit you don’t know.


Treating a conversation like a zero-sum game when it is, in fact, not a zero-sum game can undermine the whole purpose of conversation.

Wonder where else that might be happening?