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  • Writer's pictureRobert Couture


Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Art Thou Competitive or Cooperative?

Some Reflections: The question comes up in conflict resolution discussions: Are you more competitive or cooperative as a person? From my earliest memories, the oldest of five children fairly close in age, I think that question has always been on my mind: What should be shared? What should be mine? Me or you? We or me? How does personal achievement relate to fostering benefits for the group, the family, the community, the society? How do I live my life in such a way that these values are not themselves in conflict?

With so much written about negotiation and conflict resolution in the academic and business worlds, I think it’s best that I keep my comments close to the ground where, hopefully, I can add something meaningful to the conversation. So, in this blog, I expect to be more personal than academic in my accounts, more anecdotal than data driven, more colloquial than formal. Often, subject matter will be driven specifically by thoughts conveyed by where the twain meet guests, and serve, perhaps, as a primer on the process of conflict resolution in its various forms. I've been a practitioner in the field for so long, it is great fun to be the one who is asking the questions, now, as host of my podcast.

Sometimes this blog may also be about my origins and how that person has come to the art of negotiation, mediation, etc., grounded in the reality that I and others have experienced, though not a confessional about life, per se.

I have a good education, but I’m not an academic. I’m a professional musician, able to perform in many genres of music with a deep sense of the music’s affect, but I’m not a musicologist. Likewise, I’m an experienced negotiator with plenty of service hours in the trenches and a good grasp on negotiation theory, (with a Masters Certificate in Dispute Resolution), but I’m not a lecturer or professor.

While I’m intellectually curious and reasonably well read, my tendency has always been to study what I’ve already experienced in life, successes and failures that have piqued my desire to analyze, more as a tool in becoming expert than as an amorphous pleasure of the mind. I’m a pragmatist at heart, always with an eye for strategic steps which will make a discernable difference. That’s what excites me most. There is little that has given me more pleasure, for instance, than organizing a new union orchestra and successfully bargaining that first contract.

In the trenches: As a musician and labor negotiator, I’ve always been in the thick of it, going from performance to performance, negotiation to negotiation, imbedded with my colleagues and the professionals I serve as a leader with little power other than what I can actually offer the collective, in real time, on the various stages, earned moment to moment. In other words, I’ve never really coiffed a mane of institutional status. I’ve been regularly challenged by rank-and-file union members, constantly held to account by those who know more and those who know less. Doesn’t matter. My job has always been to listen with humility, make informed arguments to all comers whenever necessary, and represent the members' interests to the best of my ability. That’s just the way I’ve done it, for better or worse.

I've always thought that the intraorganizational side of labor negotiations is most important, the process of creating a team with consistent, coherent arguments well supported by the bargaining unit as a whole. That, to me, is the best way to create meaningful agency for your members at the bargaining table.

I should add that, over a three-year period, I mediated more than one-hundred Small Claims cases in Boston’s District Courts, what some call the Emergency Room of Dispute Resolution. The exercise of facilitating consensus through mediation has helped my advocacy work, I think: I’m a hard bargainer, but I try to negotiate with the ears of a mediator.

Labor Negotiations: When still a teen, I led my first job action when a couple of my fellow lifeguard colleagues and other staff had been suddenly laid off by management with no warning or explanation. I came in late that morning and learned that, apparently, envelopes with pink slips inside had been pinned a wooden post in our dressing room, waiting to be found when folks showed up to work at 8:00 am. My reaction was indignation at the callousness with which my coworkers were being treated. We were not unionized and I wasn’t familiar with how to organize a strike, but managed to get folks together, develop several demands, and I walked off the job (hoping others would follow), insisting that the director meet with us. Within two days, we gained some concessions, including the reinstatement of a couple of employees, and an apology to the staff from management. After all was said and done, there was a certain satisfaction I felt about my involvement that has always stayed with me. We did not get everything we wanted, but I had done the right thing by my coworkers and made a difference in their lives and my own.

Many years later, my first experience as a labor negotiator was also my first experience in collective bargaining negotiations, all together, and probably my most important, given what I would learn. As a new member of a prominent Boston orchestra, I agreed to be on the negotiating committee to bargain a successor to the collective bargaining agreement which was close to reaching its term. Historically, in this orchestra, the bargaining had always been led by labor lawyers on both sides of the negotiation table. I’d heard tales of big personalities and contentious negotiations which produced functional contracts, but not well understood or particularly well embraced by either side, from what I could tell. These deals were struck in accordance with an adage, usually proffered as sage advice: The best negotiation outcome usually involves both sides coming away unhappy with the results. That’s the nature of compromise.

For the record, I disagree with that statement, and I am aware that many negotiations are conducted with this assumption in mind. Necessities of the day and special circumstances notwithstanding, this is a well worn path to crudely structured agreements that no one really wants, and predictably, onerous to maintain over the term of the contract. In such a circumstance, the "gotcha" clauses are leveraged by both sides as a kind of weapon to keep the other in check.

Was I ready to bargain a labor agreement? Years earlier, I had helped organize a limited equity housing cooperative with tenants from four brownstones on my street in Boston, long a slum which was just beginning to find new life. I’ll discuss my experience at another time, but suffice to say, the process had taught me a lot, and equipped me to consider the possibility that I could be an effective labor negotiator. I also had a Masters Degree in English and expected that my drafting skills could come in handy. So, with the encouragement of my colleagues, I took a shot at representing them at the bargaining table. Seeing a change in leadership on the management side and agreeing to a theory that we could do better without lawyers at the table, presumably to induce better dialogue, the Boston Musicians’ Association president signed on to letting me lead negotiations for our team. Of course, we had access to legal counsel, whenever needed.

The negotiations went well. We were able to break ground on several contentious issues, including health insurance, retirement and tenure provisions, while at the same time elevate the business relationship between the musicians and the company. Seeing that the contract, which had been through various iterations over the years, was rife with conflicting terms and clauses, and organized in such a confusing way that no one would actually read it—certainly not the musicians—I redrafted the document supervised by both the management and union sides, a “clarification” exercise which informed my work for years to come, particularly in the bargaining of first contracts where so much drafting is required.

I came to realize that a well drafted contract, understood by all parties, encourages buy-in and makes maintenance of the agreement more of a consensus, organizational building task rather than an “I gotcha” exercise in absurdity. There are some strategies that I have developed over the years, using a "single text" method in negotiations which I will discuss in a later post.

But, in spite of the fact that these negotiations proved successful and changed the trajectory of the BMA’s bargaining tactics (and ultimately, my career), I was left troubled by the level of conflict I experienced personally with a few individuals from our orchestra who were not happy with the deal. And, I was left questioning whether or not I wanted to continue representing my colleagues in future negotiations. Looking back, I think I still needed to mature around the idea that not everyone is going to love everything you do. And, in fact, I have never been able to perform my job, any job, perfectly. One needs to make the best decisions they can, in the time they are made, with the best information available with as much honesty and humility possible. And, one must own those decisions straight up. I learned that in the process of representing colleagues, I would lose some friends (not all) and that I would make new ones, as well.

As chair of the committee and lead negotiator, I was responsible for managing offers from our side, always weighing the needs of some against the needs of the whole, (as perceived through orchestra polls and committee discussions), while framing what would be achievable in these negotiations as bargaining progressed. Managing expectations is such a critical area of concern in any negotiation, and particularly acute in labor negotiations where a ratification vote of the whole bargaining unit is the final arbiter.

We had a committee that often voted 4 to 1 on various agenda and I would learn how powerful that one contrary vote could be. In the rough and tumble of my community real estate work, I had been able to push ahead through all kinds of disagreements by taking committee votes, once I thought the issue had been fully discussed and we needed to take action steps. It wasn’t always pretty and there was plenty of conflict, but we managed to make decisions which proved effective and beneficial, overall.

On this orchestra negotiating committee, one outmatched vote could be fraught with pathos, and sometimes I felt unsettled about how things were playing out. As mentioned before, I'm from a large family and I was reminded of some of the social dynamics I had experienced growing up—some good, some not as good, but probably common among most small work groups. I hope to explore, with a knowledgeable podcast guest, how the nature and quality of people’s participation in workgroups and committees may be conditioned by their sibling experiences as children, what kind of agency they experienced in the social dynamic of their families and how that extends into adulthood.

All that said, I've learned over the years that it's best to avoid making committee decisions by a vote, and better, whenever possible, to take the time to achieve full consensus through open dialogue. I've learned that my job is to help shape effective committees that work together as an integrated team in negotiations, and I believe a competent, savvy, negotiating committee comprised of core orchestra members able to make cogent arguments at the bargaining table, is far more potent than one guy doing all the yakking.

Eventually, I decided to diversify my career and follow up on the skills I had developed as a negotiator and mediator with graduate work in Conflict Resolution. I approached my academic work with the aforementioned question in mind: Am I competitive or cooperative? Am I more of a cooperative person who appreciates integrative outcomes to conflicts or a competitive person inclined to winner-take-all outcomes? Was I more inclined to advocacy work as a negotiator, or would a career focused on mediation be a better fit? Why had my initial work as a labor negotiator been so successful and yet, left me somewhat unsatisfied?

My where the twain meet podcast, itself, is a forum for testing theories of competitive and cooperative behavior, I think. Though I've found more solutions in the dynamic mix of both competitive and cooperative tendencies during the life of a given conflict, I realize now that there has never been a yes or no answer for me on my own tendencies.

The picture at the top of this post is of me when I was nine years old, receiving a team trophy for my participation on my hometown’s 1968 Farm League Baseball Champion White Sox. It’s funny, but of the awards I've been fortunate enough to receive, this is among the most pleasing. The peeling green painted wooden fence and the half empty stands might as well have been Fenway Park with a throng of fans watching.

I was the pitcher who threw no-hitters and hit homeruns (that summer was a revelation to me about experiencing personal success), but it was the excitement and contributions of my teammates, many of whom I can still name, and one in particular who remains my best friend, which lifted my experience—that impressionable young boy’s experience—to epic proportions. That feeling of collective success was so exhilarating, my life has been forever influenced. And, of course, there was the personal pride of having been my team’s leader.

Fighting it out: Though I grew up in the rural end of town, what now might be described as an “exurb,” safe and well cared for by attentive parents and community, it's interesting how much that same culture tolerated teasing and bullying, and by extension seemed to expect boys to fight for name and honor. Of course, corporeal punishment was still part of the discipline protocol in the schools then, so it's probably not surprising that children would choose to hit each other too. In any case, I grew up believing that I couldn’t back down from a fight, and though I never started fights at school, I didn't tolerate teasing well and didn’t have the social skills to negotiate my way out of conflict, nor the ego to avoid it gracefully. So, on a few occasions, I stood in and fought.

Though terribly emotional and threatened in some of these fights, I never wished to deeply harm someone who had done me wrong. I just didn’t. And a strange outcome was that I became friends with a couple of my foes. It’s almost as if we developed a kind of mutual respect as a result of the conflict itself.


If I were to describe my emotions around conflict, I would say that I am not conflict averse. I am perfectly willing to engage, but I am loath to hurt myself and others as well. And, I’ve always had resolution in my sights, no matter what, a desire to find ground on which respect and trust may govern the relationship. Not to duck the question, but I believe I am cooperative by choice, and perhaps by nature, but I am competitive by will, and perhaps by necessity, with a strong desire to manage the boundaries of conflict so that resolution is possible: Hard on the problem, easy on the people.

I suppose that I defer to the concept of We and Me, humbled by the small victories of which I have been part, more humbled by the losses which are an inevitable part of life and often filled with the richest lessons, however.

I look forward to writing additional posts which will probably be published around the 15th, each month. And please listen to where the twain meet podcasts on this site and various podcast platforms. My wonderful guests are the core of this project.

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