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Adams Model of Personal Interaction - Dilbert Blog

Adams Model of Personal Interaction

My theory is that a typical human understands only three ways to interact with another person.

Pushover: I’ll do whatever you want.

Negotiator: I’ll do this if you do that.

Bully: Do what I want or there will be consequences

People change modes depending on circumstances. A parent, for example, can’t afford to be a Pushover, or a Negotiator, with a small child. The parental role is a Bully role by definition. It’s the only way it can work. “Do what I say or I will take away a toy.”

One person might be a Bully in one context, and a Pushover in another. If you’re locked into one mode all the time, you’re probably experiencing some friction.

A person in the military might take the Pushover role with a superior, the Bully role with subordinates, and the Negotiator role with peers. I’m making no judgment on the ethical or functional value of any of the roles. They all have a legitimate place.

The Bully role takes some explaining. Almost any human interaction has an implied penalty if it makes another person unhappy. Sometimes the penalty is emotional, in the form of withdrawn affection, less attention, or fewer future favors. Other times it can be more explicit, as in “Do this or you’re fired.” Don’t get hung up on the word “bully.” It simply refers to someone who promotes a “do this or else there will be a penalty” environment.

Bullying isn’t necessarily bad. Sometimes the only way to stop another person from doing something harmful is by threatening consequences. Bullying is society’s boundaries and its glue. The Police have to be Bullies to do their job. In the rare cases that negotiation is called for, a special Negotiator steps in.

The value of the Adams Model of Personal Interaction, if any, is in understanding what modes of interaction are likely to work together. Obviously two Bullies will make bad partners. Two Pushovers will get nothing done. A Negotiator won’t do well with either a Pushover or a Bully, because neither will negotiate.

A Bully and a Pushover can do well as long as the Pushover keeps his ego in check. Some Pushovers enjoy the role.

Two negotiators can do well together, if they don’t exhaust each other, and they negotiate fairly.

While people can move easily from one mode to the other, I suspect everyone has a go-to mode when the situation is ambiguous. You have to start somewhere. I wonder if most tension in this world comes from people who get locked into their go-to mode and don’t recognize when it’s time to change modes.