Why is it 'Playing Well'?

October 29, 2008

Welcome to my new blog!

In this first entry I’d like to explain the name “Playing Well.” Over the past fourteen-plus years, I have been fascinated with conflict or life challenges. Whether you are battling with yourself or another person, frustrated with life or fighting an organization, I continue to be interested. I search across cultures to find common techniques for overcoming tough battles and share what I learn through writing, teaching and coaching. A common theme that keeps appears is seeing any challenge as something we can “play well.”

Challenge and conflict is often referred to as a game. As I wrote in The Way of Conflict, “When mapping competition between nations or markets, economists often use the words conflict and game interchangeably. For thousands of years human beings have created every imaginable variety of game. As a species we are drawn to the energy and creativity hidden in games and, thus, conflict. We intuitively know the positive potential of opposing forces meeting and engaging. It is no surprise that the Super Bowl draws the highest worldwide television viewing audience each year.”

A Hasao proverb adds, “When a quarrel heats up, pretend it is a game.” To the human mind games are often equated with fun. Games are “played.” If I say “do you want to be in a conflict” you may cringe or want to run away. But, if I ask “would you like to play a game” I’m suspicious you’ll step forward with some curiosity and greater willingness to engage. If we can simply think of any conflict as a game, we position ourselves in a more expanded mental state.

The theme of playing well continued into my second book Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. To understand this concept we also can look to the martial artist or the mythic warrior. Here fighting is a contest or competition where your opponent is a critical and valuable component of play. “Instead of being victims, they strove to honestly accept their circumstances and improve them. As a result, these combatants became confident, strong and successful.” 

My eventual career in conflict transformation began as a selfish pursuit to figure out how to conduct myself with grace under pressure. Frankly, I wanted to look good when in trouble and figure out a fast resolution! These were good carrots to initially motivate my learning, but after years of study and writing, I found “looking good and getting out” weren’t really the greatest prizes to be had in this game. Today I find myself passionate about understanding how we can fight well, or “play well” regardless of our adversary and actually no matter what the final result.

I am in the process of completing a third book on how to move through our toughest times. It addresses those conflicts when we are fighting with life, or some might say, with God. I found myself returning to “playing well” when I attempting an analogy to describe why I am drawn a cross-cultural research approach. Here’s a brief excerpt from my upcoming book, Standing in a New Life:

“It appears that upon birth we are dropped into the middle of a playing field where an ongoing, crazily complex game is being played. Some participants or “teams” perceive it as a treasure hunt, where others explain it as football match with at least two sides. Over human existence, groups have documented their results after trying different plays; recording their favorite moves and what they think the rules might be. Over the years these become de-facto rules and plays for that self-assembled team and are thus incorporated into their sacred texts and myths.

Across all the teams there seem to be some standard approaches to play. For example, theGolden Rule seems to universally accepted and “telling the truth” can be found in everyone’s playbook.  Yet, there are unique interpretations of what will make a player successful. Some have had success with certain food restrictions for their players where others don’t see diet as a player consideration. Some believe I can forgive you for transgressions, while others say that redemption is between you and God.  

Some teams believe that their sacred rule book/playbook is the only one officially sanctioned by the game’s originator, but I am not sold on that notion. Instead I have noticed that each ancient text brings wisdom, yet comments on the game from a slightly differently perspective. It is as though each culture observes the field from a unique position and thus makes distinct observations about: 1) the game we are playing, 2) with whom we matched and 3) how we win at the end. As someone who likes to analyze the game, I like to gather information from all over the field.

So, instead, I like to read every life rule or play book I can get my hands on and look for clues on how the game might be played well by searching for the common approaches and overall “rule” agreement. If every culture believes it is good to “count your blessings” or that play time seems to subdivide into four distinct repeating quarters, my approach is to suggest these are “moves” we might wish to try to better navigate this mysterious contest.”

I am struck by those who do not focus solely on the prize, but also how they play. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in “A Letter from Birmingham City Jail”:  “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”  It is those individuals who strive to play well, whether they “win” or not that grab my attention. Like Tiger Woods or Dana Torres they advance all our universal potential and our understanding of the game. By focusing on the game and the process, winning seems to be secondary and, paradoxically, more likely!

I hope through this blog we can together practice strategies for overcoming challenges. May it help us to uncover a greater understanding of this wild and sometimes wonderful game whether at work or beyond. In the meantime, “play well!”

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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