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Tuesday, November 1, 2022

US Sports Psyche: Adversarial Relationships


Bruce Wilson, PhD

How do we handle relationships, couples, friends, family, or work colleagues, that are oppositional or adversarial? Are there strategies that work better than others? Could people who do not think like me somehow be more beneficial to me than people who agree with me? These questions have stumped most of us and we all struggle with adversaries at times. However, struggle also connotes a possible growth opportunity that we may be missing.

“Prosperity tries the fortunate, adversity the great.” – Rose Kennedy

Adversarial Defined

The definition of adversarial is anything related to a person, place, or thing where there is disagreement, opposition or where problems are created that go against a desired result. We would be a total outlier in life if we did not experience someone in our day-to-day existence that fits into this description.

The usual responses to our adversaries include anger, avoidance, rudeness, loss of respect, frustration, resentment, and even disgust. These reactions do not usually portend a satisfactory solution. Things tend to go from bad to worse, leading to total avoidance or the end of the relationship.

“Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful.” – Zig Ziglar

Alternative Reactions

One alternative to becoming adversarial is to go parallel. “Parallel thinking” explores the subject, rather than the person, through an alternating approach of giving options and then listening to the others options. The subject rather than the person becomes the object of this exploration. We have already removed the personalisation component of the disagreement. Emotionally, we are already in a better place.

Another tact with the adversarial person is to try very hard to find something about their view that you can agree on. Finding any point of congruency can diffuse the situation to some degree. Even minimal agreement will entice the adversarial person you are dealing with to find something they can agree to about your view. This acceptance of each other’s viewpoint can lead the way to some mutual rather than exclusive styles of thinking. We can both have something of value to offer on this subject.

Eventually, you may even arrive at “white hat thinking”, which allows for even more progress with adversarial thinkers. The white hat represents information gathering. Think about the knowledge and insights that you've collected already – but also the information you're missing, and where you can go to get it. Now you are working in collaboration with one another rather than as competitors.

The opportunities for growth and development of your relationship with the adversarial have now improved to a level whereby you are both benefiting from your differences. Each of your viewpoints have been improved through exercising your diversity in a more productive way than it would have been through conflict.

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.” – Malcolm Forbes

Diversity Negates Adversity

Sometimes, mistakenly, we confuse independence with being adversarial. This idea most likely starts when the child becomes an adolescent or young adult. We individuate by being adversarial as a teenager to be our own person. Our identity is mistakenly linked to our perceived independence. Independence does not have to be adversarial. In fact, it may even hinder our independence due to the plethora of opportunities that we have missed to learn from others.

Our diversity as humans elevates our potential to contribute to each other in unique ways. What you offer me, I may not possess and vice versa. Our mutual contributions to one another, which are negotiated through our diversity, are much more valuable and irreplaceable than our perceived differences. Paradoxically, implementing our individual diversity through collaboration may ultimately enhance our unrealized potential to nullify many of our adversarial relationships.


Dr. Bruce Wilson is a psychologist with 25 years of experience. He enjoys sharing his ramblings with friends and colleagues. He is currently in private practice at Mind Health Care in Geelong, Australia. This article is solely his work.

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