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How to Avoid Power Struggles

How to Avoid Power Struggles
Is there someone who constantly baits you into a power struggle?

In this presentation, you’ll learn how to escape the bait, and change your interactions from negative to productive.

CPI’s Pam Sikorski shares key defusers, visualization exercises, action steps, and a powerful strategy for setting effective limits:

Presentation highlights

4 Common Types of Power Struggle
[5:20] First, we're going to start with defending your authority or credibility. Examples of this type of power struggle might sound something like this, "Who are you to tell me what to do?" "What gives you the right to tell me how to parent my child?" "I don't want to hear what you think as a nurse, I want to talk to the doctor." Sound familiar for any of you out there? So how have others ever challenged your authority? Let me pause for a moment, and let you think about that. Again, how have others that you deal with challenged your authority ever? How does it make you feel to have your credibility questioned?

For the person we're in a power struggle with, it can often feel like someone is not believing them, thinks they're a liar, or is always supporting someone else's point of view, not theirs. It immediately puts us on the defense when someone needs to defend their authority or credibility, or feels like they need to defend their authority or credibility. I know that for myself, these kinds of power struggles have made me second guess myself, and get distracted from the real issue at hand in that moment. Think about how this might come across and impact things like our body language, or our tone of voice, perhaps the volume of speech, or our rate and rhythm of speech.

When we think about how body language might be influenced for instance, could you ever find yourself crossing your arms, and closing yourself off from that other person? Maybe you're the type to all of a sudden to put your hands on your hips. Maybe you engage in an eye roll. Ever found yourself shaking a finger or pointing a finger at that other person, maybe nodding your head in disagreement with what they're saying? Maybe you find yourself staring off into space or avoiding direct eye contact with that person, or maybe we even start to walk way or turn our backs on that individual. 

When we think about the impact on tone of voice, could we ever sound dismissive perhaps to the other person? Might they sense the aggravation in our tone of voice? Could our frustration be coming across? Maybe that person perceives us as exasperated with them, or perhaps we're even sounding and seeming insecure to that other individual. In terms of the impact on volume of speech, maybe we find ourselves getting louder and not even realizing it, or maybe you're the other kind of individual. Does it ever stop you dead in your tracks with silence not knowing what to say when that other person really gets you into a power struggle? And lastly, if we're talking about volume of speech being influenced, that also frequently influences rate and rhythm of speech as well. As we find ourselves getting more angry with that individual, then perhaps we're also speeding up the pace at which we are speaking.

We might not even realize these subtle tells that we are giving away in our non-verbal and para-verbal messages, but trust me, they are being sent. Many times we mistakenly believe that we can disguise them well, but they often are perceived by the person you are interacting with.

[8:57] A second type of power struggle we want to take a closer look at today involves what's called personal button pushing. This comes from the fact that the person you're struggling with knows you very well. They know what can really get under your skin and bother you, and they will keep setting you off until they get the reaction that they are looking for, knowing you'll feel bad about that, back down, and that they then win the power struggle. Maybe they know it's personal insults that can get under your skin, comments about your weight, your appearance, how you do your job, insulting something you said. Maybe it's a racial slur. Maybe it's a threat to harm your own children. But they know what can get to you, and will set off that button.

Think about for a minute what pushes your buttons and why. How has that come to be something that can really get under your skin? Think about how those in your care learn what your personal buttons are. Have you maybe found yourself talking with coworkers in places where you thought it was confidential, but others are listening in on your conversations? For those of you working in healthcare, I think about places like nurse's stations, or again where someone in a waiting room might overhear what people are saying in an office right nearby. So again, think about those in your care learn what your personal buttons are, and how you can protect that information. How can you rationally detach or maintain professionalism and not take it personally when those buttons are pushed? Maybe you're going to need the assistance of a team member or colleague when you're not able to rationally detach. 

One great activity you might choose to use if you're a trainer out there that you can lead at a staff meeting or in a refresher class to help staff realize what they're personal buttons are is called the "Human Continuum". Let me describe the activity for you. All you need for this activity are two pieces of paper. On one, you're going to make a sign that has the number 1 on it, and the other sign will have the number 10 on it. You put those two signs down on the ground, or taped to the wall with a tape line between the two ends. Again, 1 on one side, 10 on the other. You'll ask your audience to come and join you by that line, and what you're going to do is read off to them a series of things that could happen in the course of their day. Asking them to stand along the line to rate the level of emotional reaction that particular event would get out of them; 1 being "wouldn't bother me at all", 10 being, "smoke would be coming out of my ears if that event were to happen". 

So you'll read events one at a time, and ask them to go stand to, again, match their level of emotional reaction to that event. Some examples could include things like being spit at in your face, having a false allegation made against or about you, learning that someone has keyed your car in the parking lot, or maybe a colleague overrides a decision that you have made. After all your audience members have again gone to where their emotional reaction would be at, discuss with the group why they're standing where they are, how they came to make that decision, and again, what could people who are down at the 7, 8, 9, to 10 level learn from those who are down in the 1 to 3 level. Maybe there are some great rational detachment strategies that group is using, they can share with the other group. It's a great way to get people in touch with, again, what their buttons are, and what we can do about those personal buttons. So try leading that activity at one of your next staff meetings.

[12:57] A third kind of power struggle we want to get familiar with and be aware of is rooted in the bringing up of past history or irrelevant issues. These kinds of power struggles often come from grudge holding, meaning the keeping of a scorecard where a person never has an opportunity to erase the checkmarks made against them. Think about comments that may give away this kind of power struggle is happening. Comments like, "You tried that same thing last week" or "I talked to your teacher from last school year, she said you did the same thing back then." Again, is there a keeping of a scorecard going on against an individual?

Another way we could be bringing up past history or irrelevant issues is through the making of comparisons. A way that a person can engage you in this kind of power struggle may sound something like this, "My last teacher, or nurse, or caseworker didn't do things that way." Again, you're being compared to someone from the past here, and that's how you get involved in the power struggle. And finally, the bringing up of past history and irrelevant issues may be trying to sidetrack you off the current topic. This individual may be asking you all kinds of unrelated questions, and the goal here is to get you to pack your bags, and go off on a tangent so that they can make you forget what the real issue was, or the original request that was made.

When dealing with this third kind of power struggle, one way we can avoid getting sidetracked is by following what are called the "Four CARE Principles". The C stands for the word "concentrate", meaning ignore or get rid of any distractions. That's going to help you to not bring up past history or irrelevant issues. Keep your focus. Try using things like a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door, putting down your cell phone and not responding immediately to those pages that are coming in while you're dealing with an individual trying to engage you in a power struggle. The A stands for the word "acknowledge", meaning we want to use facial expressions and body posture to let the individual know we are listening to them, we are acknowledging their presence and what they are saying. This may happen through things like validating head nods, leaning into a conversation, making sure our hands are in an open posture, getting at the same level with that other individual; so matching, if they're standing, we're standing, if they're seated, we're seated.

The R in the "CARE Principles" stands for the word "respond", meaning we want to paraphrase back to the person what was said, asking questions for clarification where needed. But remember this needs to come from a very sincere, genuine, and authentic place, otherwise that strategy could backfire on you. And finally, E stands for "empathize". Try to see things from that individual's circumstances, and through their eyes. Change your perspective, step into their shoes as you look at the situation at hand. 

[16:15] The fourth and final kind of power struggle involves making empty threats, or issuing ultimatums, meaning unfortunately our limits did not involve the giving of choices. This often happens out of anger where we might state extreme consequences, for example, or it could sound something like, "Don't do this or else" or "You need to do this because I said so." Often the individual we're in that kind of power struggle with sees it as an invitation to really test us to see if what we are saying is actually true. They're thinking, "I wonder if this person really means it, and will follow through." These kinds of power struggles can lead to a breakdown in trust, and the individual not feeling safe around us.

Now, this is a particular concern if you deal with individuals who have a lot of trauma in their backgrounds. Feeling safe physically, emotionally, mentally is of the utmost importance, so this is a particular one we'd want to be cautious about, again, if we support individuals who have traumatic backgrounds. Without preplanning and practice by staff, this is where our emotions running high can lead to when we are trying to deescalate a defensive individual. 

What to Do About Power Struggles
[18:04] We can avoid getting into any of these types of power struggles by first of all early identification, and reminding ourselves, simply don't pick up the rope. Now that we're better equipped to realize as one of these power struggles could be starting, we can simply not choose and consent to participate. We just can't pick up the other end of the rope. It takes two to have a power struggle.

Secondly, we can change our perspective, seeing the moment as an opportunity rather than as something negative we have to deal with. When someone tries to get us to take the bait, and engage in a power struggle, it is truly an opportunity to practice and master our craft at responding appropriately. It's a chance to teach, and to role model expected behaviors, and to grow our rapport with that individual. We want to, and can, improve our credibility and professionalism in that moment. So think of it as a positive rather than something we should fear or that could fluster us. 

A third strategy for avoiding and engaging in power struggles is to stay calm, followed by giving a silent pause while modeling cognition, and then matter-of-factly using what's called a "diffuser". Modeling cognition can include things like giving a validating head nod, looking up at the sky, touching your chin, tilting your head to the side. These are all signs to an individual in crisis that we are really thinking about seriously what they have told us and what they are saying. When we talk about using a diffuser, examples of diffusers include things like, "Hmm", "Okay", "Noted", "Perhaps", "I hear you", "Your point of view", "Regardless", "Keeping that in mind", "Good point". Comments like that can diffuse a power struggle situation, again, if your non-verbals match what it is you're saying, and your demeanor is staying calm. Follow up that diffuser with the word "and" rather than "but". "But" can close off conversation, but the word "and" leaves it open for "What else I'm going to redirect us to back to the topic at hand". So important to follow up, again, your diffuser word with the word "and". 

Setting Limits
[20:41] Keep in mind limit setting is an appropriate response or intervention for any type of power struggle. So that's where I want to take us next today. Let's get into some greater detail about effective limit setting. Formally defined, setting limits is a verbal intervention technique in which a person is offered choices and consequences. We always want to make sure that our limits meet the test of being clearly and simply stated. Are they reasonable for the situation and person we're interacting with? And finally, do they meet the test of being enforceable? Meaning, will we follow through with the consequences that are given?

[25:45] Another statement I want you to consider myth or reality about, "I can make individuals choose to behave appropriately." What do you think? "I can make individuals choose to behave appropriately." I see this one as a myth. The only person I have control over is me and how I respond to someone else's behavior. We cannot make individuals choose to behave in any certain way. Last one I want you to consider today is the following statement, "Successful limit setting is connected to good empathic listening skills." Again, "Successful limit setting is connected to good empathic listening skills." Myth or reality? I see this one as absolutely a reality. Our listening skills attune us to what motivates someone and what their precipitating factors might be. It's how we get all the critical information we need to know in order to set the best limits with an individual. 

[28:27] It may help all of us to stay on the right track in the future if we follow the following series of steps for effective limit setting. So if that scenario you just thought about didn't have the best outcome, see if these steps might assist you. Number one, start by explaining exactly what specific behavior is inappropriate or unacceptable; make sure you're specific here. Second step, explain why that behavior cannot continue. Don't assume that the individual knows, clarify it for them, give them the rationale for why a change in behavior is necessary. Third step, give simple, reasonable, motivating choices with the corresponding outcomes. Again, give simple, reasonable, motivating choices with the corresponding outcomes. Step four is you need to allow enough time for the person to actually make a choice, otherwise they're perceiving it as an ultimatum. Now, again, keep in mind what seems like an eternity for you will seem like a very short period of time to the other individual. So give adequate allowance of time for them to really think through what the behavioral choices are, and what they're choosing to do. Don't assume they'll make the wrong choice in behavior. And finally, step number five, follow through with the given outcomes for the choice in behavior that person makes, as consistency is what helps people to feel safe.

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