Playing Tennis: The Power of Interpersonal Learning

“I’ll log the flight.” We’re sitting on the tarmac after a combat mission in Afghanistan, and I grab the logbook computer and start filling in the relevant information from our missionthe crew members’ names, number of hours flown, maintenance status, and other pertinent information that must be logged after each flight. After a long day in the air, I figure it’s the least I can do for my crew chiefs, who usually take the 5 minutes to complete this end-of-mission task. As I close the computer, I look up to see my crew chief looking at me incredulously. I’m befuddled. I thought I was doing this guy a favor, but he’s looking at me like I just said something offensive about his family. What’s going on?

Army Air Corps Apache Longbow helicopter landing at Camp Bastion airfield, Afghanistan. (UK MOD Photo/Wikimedia)

In the military, human interactions carry tactical and even strategic significance. Whether leading a team, planning with a staff, or partnering with a foreign force, so much of our success hinges on our ability to communicate, understand, learn and grow with others. Encounters like the one with my crew chief are commonplace in our personal and professional lives. Yet the messages we send to others with our actions and words are often lost in translation. When this happens—when we sense a breakdown or a void in communication—both parties in the interaction are left with a choice. Explore or retreat. Learn or guess. Play tennis together…or walk away from the court. As we describe below, to “play tennis” is to deliberately engage in interpersonal learning. Understanding how to promote a healthy tennis match and the power and limits of interpersonal learning can add productivity to our interactions with others and nuance to the ways we address and solve tough problems.

Playing Tennis: A Game With Three Realities

The tennis (or net) analogy provides a powerful way to examine moments with potential for interpersonal learning. The analogy comes from Stanford Business School and one of its most popular courses, Interpersonal Dynamics, nicknamed “Touchy Feely.” The course describes three realities that exist in typical interpersonal interactions. The first is the behavior itself. I know the action I just did—logging the flight on laptop—and my soldier knows it. But the other two realities—my internal motives and my soldier’s internal reaction—are hidden. I’m the only one who knows the true motives as to why I decided to log the flight, and my soldier is the only one who knows his internal reaction to my behavior. These two, hidden realities are where interpersonal learning can take place.

I’m standing on one side of the court, my soldier’s on the other side. The net separates our two realities...

This is where the analogy of a game of tennis comes into play. I’m standing on one side of the court, my soldier’s on the other side. The net separates our two realities—my intentions for, and my soldier’s reactions to, my behavior. My crew chief didn’t know I logged the flight because I wanted to take a burden off of his shoulders. Or that I sensed a divide between crew chief and pilots in our company, and I wanted to emphasize a team mindset before, during, and after flights. I didn’t know my crew chief had recently been negatively counseled by his platoon sergeant, and that any slip-up—even an incorrectly logged flight—might jeopardize his future in our flight company. Now it’s on us to decide whether or not to play tennis—to disclose these hidden realities so we can spur a level of understanding and growth for both of us.

Barriers to Disclosure: Censorship, Assumptions, and Tone

But many of us shy away from playing tennis in our interpersonal interactions. Instead of disclosing, we censor ourselves for myriad reasons. Dale Miller of Stanford cites a few of these reasons in his book on self-censorship, including group preservation, self-promotion, avoiding disapproval and remaining “true to one’s self-image.”[1] To overcome these self-censoring hurdles requires a level of vulnerability. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”[2] It’s about “sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.”[3] We must carefully choose when to play a game of tennis with others, and when we do decide to play, it requires us to show our backhands in a way that may be uncomfortable. Vulnerability and interpersonal learning go hand in hand.

While we must disclose to learn interpersonally, we must also make sure we’re staying on our side of the net and creating the type of environment that can foster willing participation in the game. Many of us sabotage the likelihood of playing a good game of tennis. The Touchy Feely course describes this as “crossing the net”—we start making assumptions about others’ motives or others’ reactions. In their bestselling book Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, and Heen hone in on these “net-crossing” tendencies—we wrongly assume another’s intentions, and we wrongly assume that if our own intentions were pure, then the impact of our action on others must be positive. “Good intentions don’t sanitize bad impact.”[4] These assumptions tend to put others on the defensive and shut down the game.

In our relationships and on our teams, we have to create an environment where individuals are willing to disclose their intentions and reactions without fear of reprisal.

Beyond crossing the net, tone and climate—the psychological safety we feel in a group—are also critical determinants as to whether we can play a good game of interpersonal tennis with others. Harvard’s Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as the “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” She finds psychological safety “affects learning behavior, which in turn affects team performance.” In others words, leaders must create a tone, or mindset, towards growth. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck makes the connection between a growth mindset and leadership. A fixed mindset, one focused on “measuring—or protecting—their fixed abilities,” prevents the type of inquiry and debate that can spur growth and innovation in an organization.[5] As Miller alludes to above, worrying about self-preservation causes us to censor, and censorship prevents interpersonal learning. In our relationships and on our teams, we have to create an environment where individuals are willing to disclose their intentions and reactions without fear of reprisal.

The Power of Interpersonal Learning

On the surface, playing tennis is an effort in self-awareness. Joseph Huft and Harry Ingham developed the Johari framework in the 1950s, and the framework provides a simple way to visualize the gains from tennis. Feedback from others helps shrink our blind spots—those parts of ourselves known to others but not to ourselves. When we disclose our intentions or reactions to others, we reduce the part of ourselves normally hidden from others. Those aspects of our being that are known to others and to ourselves—our “arena”—grow as we engage in interpersonal learning.

The Johari Window (

Playing tennis also helps us connect with others, and feeling more connected increases performance, motivation, and confidence. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee make the case that when our emotional center—or limbic system—is connected, we think more clearly and perform at a higher level. In addition, researchers have found a “mere sense of social connectedness” leads the people we connect with “to adopt the interests and goals of others” as their own. Our motivation increases when we feel connected to others. Finally, with connection comes confidence. Research suggests the obstacles we perceive become smaller and shallower when we emotionally bond with the people around us.

In addition to these performance-based benefits from interpersonal learning, playing tennis makes us better critical thinkers. Critical thinking is about arriving at a deeper and more nuanced understanding of a problem or an issue. Critical thinkers understand the strengths, weaknesses and assumptions that underpin their own stance as well as those of others. Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek distinguish between various levels of thinking in their book Becoming Brilliant: What Science tells us about Raising Successful Children. As people build towards becoming critical thinkers, they move from Level 1 to Level 4. They move from “seeing is believing” (Level 1) to understanding that “truths differ” (Level 2), then from “opinions” (Level 3) to finally “mastering the intricacies of doubt” (Level 4). The jump from Level 3 to Level 4 provides a salient point. At Level 3, people “recognize that there are other points of view but still rely too heavily on their own personal reality.”[6] Playing tennis is taking the time to acknowledge not only our own assumptions in how we view the world, but also striving towards a deeper appreciation of the theories and associated assumptions of others. If we're not willing to disclose and listen, our ideas will be one-sided, we’ll miss our own blind spots in reasoning and we’ll never make the leap to Level 4. With tennis comes learning, growing and better thinking.

The Limits of Interpersonal Learning

It’s important to note that not all learning is interpersonal. Just as it’s important to engage and share, solitude and reflection also provide the space for deeper and more nuanced understanding. In a lecture at West Point a few years ago, William Deresiewicz conveyed this point, stating that “solitude is the very essence of leadership.” To make tough decisions, leaders must know “not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe, but what you believe.” In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain expands on this point of knowing who oneself. “The secret in life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, it’s a lamplit desk.”[7] Growth happens on and off the court. And it’s on us to determine when to learn alone or with others.

We also have to be mindful of how connecting with others impacts our moral judgment.

From a leadership perspective, there are potential downsides to taking a more empathetic approach with others. Questions of fairness arise; what would my other soldiers think if I had sat down and taken the time to engage and connect with the crew chief, and not everybody else, after the mission? Perhaps the aforementioned upsides from connecting with others dampen on the whole when we don’t make an effort to connect with everybody in the room.

We also have to be mindful of how connecting with others impacts our moral judgment. There’s a strong moral argument against empathy, the type of empathy Yale’s Paul Bloom warns can act “like a spotlight and shine brightest on those we care about.”[8] Bloom makes the distinction between “emotional empathy” and “cognitive empathy.” The feelings we feel with emotional empathy cloud our ability to make the reasoned moral judgments that would pass longer term, cost-benefit analyses. Cognitive empathy is more about considering than feeling and helps us understand “how people work.”[9] Cognitive empathy allows for a more “distanced compassion and kindness” without letting the emotional connection overwhelm our moral logic.[10] Playing tennis can add emotional weight to our decision-making, and just like we need to be equitable in how we engage with others, we also can’t confuse feeling for consideration. We need to stay cognitive—and not emotional—with our empathy.

Questions for Growth

My crew chief and I never played a game of tennis. Our reasons for not disclosing our hidden realities probably had a lot to do with censorship, assumptions, and tone. During a deployment, I often censored myself to maintain the momentum of the mission and the team. Did my crew chief and I really have the time to sit and talk about something so touchy feely? And I certainly fell into the trap highlighted in Difficult Conversations; I thought my intentions were pure as I logged the flight. And to me, at the time, pure intentions were all that mattered. When I consider the tone I set within my crew and company during our deployment, was it safe and trusting enough to foster interpersonal learning? Probably not.

In the grand scheme of things, this incident with my crew chief was a small moment in what was a very long and eventful deployment. But these types of interactions were also commonplace, and I can’t help but think about how often I either walked away from or jeopardized the likelihood of a productive game of tennis with my subordinates, peers, partners, and superiors.

These reflections lead us to important questions we should constantly be asking ourselves as we interact with others.

  • When should we play tennis, and when should we walk away?
  • What's preventing us from disclosing more about ourselves?
  • Are our assumptions about others creating barriers towards dialogue—are we crossing the net?
  • And are we creating the psychological tone on our teams that can really foster honest and open dialogue?
  • What assumptions are we using in our own thinking, and have we taken the time to understand the assumptions of those with perspectives different from our own?

As an organization that prides itself on developing thoughtful leaders and thinking critically to solve tough problems, the Army and its leaders must consider these questions. Doing so is a start towards deeper relationships, stronger leadership and sharper thinking.

Jacob Sheehan is an Instructor of Economics in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point and a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army, and a former Fulbright Scholar. Ben Summers is an Instructor of Economics in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point and an Aviation Officer in the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this article are the authors' alone and do not represent the official position of the the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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Header Image: Tennis courts at the Mayrhofen-Hippach Hotel, Austria (Mayrhofen-Hippach)


[1] Dale Miller, An Invitation to Social Psychology: Expressing and Censoring the Self (Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth, 2006), 4-7.

[2] Brown, Brené. Daring greatly: how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012), 34.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. Difficult conversations: how to discuss what matters most (New York, NY: Viking, 1999), 50.

[5] Carol S. Dweck and Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: the new psychology of success (New York: Random House, 2006), 111.

[6] Golinkoff, Roberta M., and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Becoming brilliant: what science tells us about raising successful children (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2016), 170.

[7] Susan Cain and Susan Cain, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 264.

[8] Paul Bloom. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: Ecco, 2016), 50.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] Ibid., 39.