The ICC virtual summit – ‘Coaching For Peace’ is running now and I gave the first session a few days ago talking about a coach as an internal peacemaker when the client is fighting themselves. I like the idea of the coach as peacemaker, many clients are at war with themselves in different ways. Sometimes decisions are hard to make, there are good arguments and good values on both sides, and yet the client thinks they have to go one way or the other. Sometimes the coach can help the client find a third way. Sometimes the coach can help the client clarify the clash, so the client can congruently follow one path. And sometimes the client sees, with the help of the coach, that they need not choose at all, the problem is not solved, but dissolved.
This led me to think about games. Games are ritualised, bounded conflicts that can also be fun. There is a also a huge subject called game theory which is the study of strategic decisions that we take in situations that are bounded by perceived rules. Most people have heard the term ‘zero-sum game’, meaning a situation where one person wins and so the other person has to lose, (therefore the result is zero, the loss side cancels the win side and the result is zero.) The game of tennis is a zero sum game insofar that one person wins and someone else loses. You cannot have a tied tennis match. However you can reframe the game by saying both players ‘won’ as they played well, gave their best and gave great entertainment to the crowd.
The opposite type of game is a ‘non zero sum game’ where there does not have to be a winner and a loser. Players may do equally well, (or badly).
These are useful distinctions, and many years ago I read a book that made an even more interesting distinction. The book was by James Carse, and it was called ‘Finite and Infinite games’. It is a short book, but it made a deep impression on me. Carse distinguishes between two types of game. First there are finite games – these are played for the purpose of winning. Obvious examples are football, chess, and politics. Nothing wrong with these, there can be a worthy winner and a loser. However, the rules are fixed, and (mostly) they are enjoyable to play, although people can treat even a game like tennis as deadly serious and stake their self esteem on the result.
So finite games are played to win, and if we win we feel good. If we lose we feel bad, the game itself cannot supply a win-win solution, by its very nature, someone has to lose. The only way you can play a win-win game of football is if both teams enjoy the match – they both win a good time. However, some people treat relationships, sales, work and life as finite games as well – they want to win. But you can’t ‘win’ at a relationship, because if you win, then your partner loses and since you are in a relationship with them, your well being is tied to theirs, so you lose too. You may ‘win’ an argument, but that is a very small part of a relationship. Relationships can only be a win-win game or a lose-lose game.
The problem with a finite game is that there are no rules for changing the rules, no outside perspective, so where existing rules are not adequate, you just continue with the same response. Finite games can also lead to so called double binds – where all choices seem wrong, not choosing is also experienced as bad – but you have to choose.
Finite games often seem deadly serious – you have to do something. But as James Carse says, ‘If someone feels they must play, they can’t play’. When you play a finite game you play inside boundaries – and the boundaries are the limiting thoughts about the situation. So for example an executive in a difficult meeting might think they need to take control – but if they do, then they will lose the creative input from the team. However the meeting is not going anywhere, so they feel they have to take control. In this situation, the boundaries the executive is up against are his beliefs about what taking control means and how to do it. A coach might help him see ‘taking control’ in a new perspective, and make a better distinction like, influencing the direction of the meeting, rather than taking control, while enabling others to make their best contribution.
An infinite game is different. The purpose of playing an infinite game is to continue playing.
There is no winning or losing this game. Evolution is a infinite game, life is an infinite game.
Relationship can be an infinite game. Most of children’s games are too, they really play – at best freely and spontaneously. Infinite games have adequate rules for changing the rules, so players play with boundaries, not inside them, or we can say they make their own boundaries.
What does this mean for coaching?
I believe it means that a coach can help a client transform a problem. They do this by showing the client what are the beliefs or assumptions that the client is making about the situation that are providing the boundaries. The client then can change the boundaries – in doing this they have changed the rules of the game they are playing.
Coaches help clients to change their finite games into infinite games.