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In a Contest of Wills, Even Winning is Losing

by Tammy Lenski
November 2012

Tammy Lenski's Conflict Zen Blog

Tammy Lenski

I allowed myself to get into a contest of wills the other day. Reflecting on it afterward, I recalled this tale of a radio conversation between U.S. and Canadian naval forces off the coast of Newfoundland in 1995:

Americans: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.”

Canadians: “Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.”

Americans: “This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.”

Canadians: “No. I say again, you divert your course.”

Americans: “This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States Atlantic Fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north—that’s one-five-degrees north—or counter-measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.”

Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

This story is popular and continues to circulate the Internet, though it is not a true story. Why do we continue to pass it along to others, believing it’s true and chuckling at the outcome? We do it because the story portrays a spitting contest that’s easily recognizable and familiar from our own lives. It portrays a kind of bullying, too, and we feel gleeful when the bully experiences the kind of “Gotcha!” we wish more bullies would experience.

Winning the contest of wills is a waste of energy in ongoing personal and professional relationships. It does nothing to strengthen the relationship or give it a strong foundation for weathering the next disagreement. It sidetracks us from what’s really important. It leaves debris in our wake.

Better to redirect the conversation to something fruitful. I wish I’d said, “I think we’re both capable of keeping this contest of wills going quite a while. Let’s do something different. What should we discuss that we can make some progress on?”


Dr. Tammy Lenski helps people resolve conflict in ongoing business and personal relationships and bring their "A" game to difficult conversations. Since founding her NH-based conflict resolution firm Myriaccord LLC in 1997, Tammy has worked with individuals and organizations worldwide as a master mediator, executive coach, speaker, and educator. Author of the award-winning book, Making Mediation Your Day Job, she recently received the Association for Conflict Resolution’s prestigious Mary Parker Follett award for innovative and pioneering work in her field. Her second book, The Conflict Pivot, was released in 2014.


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