How to Avoid Power Struggles

February 24, 2021

Across all aspects of life—professional and personal—we’re likely to face situations involving power struggles. You may ask yourself, “What is a power struggle?” These can take the form of students questioning authority, individuals in your care pushing personal buttons, or even defending your credibility with patients. Power struggles can occur in any profession and can carry over into our personal lives as well.

If you find yourself encountering power struggles on a regular basis, managing them effectively is critical to your mental well-being, as well as that of the individuals you're conversing with. In this blog, you’ll learn how to avoid power struggles by understanding the most common types and implementing limit setting techniques.

Identifying the Types of Power Struggles

The first step to understanding power struggles, is being able to identify which type you are in. When you understand which power struggle you are entering, you can better stop and avoid it. The four most common struggles are identified as: defending one’s authority or credibility, personal button pushing, bringing up history/irrelevant issues, and making empty threats or issuing ultimatums. Now let’s break each of those down.

Defending One’s Authority or Credibility

If you’re in the health care field, this type of power struggle initiation can take the form of a patient asking to speak to a doctor because they don’t trust your judgement as a nurse. When your credibility is challenged, our instinct is to become defensive. This leads to a change in our body language and our tone of voice; both can quickly open the door for a power struggle.

Instinctive changes in body language—crossing arms, hands on hips, and shaking of the head—are quick signs that either you or the individual you’re speaking with are entering a power struggle. The same goes for the tone of voice being used by both parties; paraverbal messages evoking heightened emotions can be a sign that a power struggle is occurring. Making a mental acknowledgment of that body language or tone of voice is your signal to begin de-escalating.

Personal Button Pushing

Oftentimes, personal button pushing is done to elicit a reaction out of someone with the intent of getting them to back down. Those providing care for a loved one may see this type of power struggle, as that familial bond provides the individual in your care with a better understanding of the exact buttons to push. Knowing what your personal buttons are and why they are triggers for you is important information that can prevent you from taking those messages personally.

Bringing up History/Irrelevant Issues

When encountering the same person on the other end of a power struggle, it’s not uncommon to hear—or catch yourself saying phrases—like, “You tried that last time.” Teachers may face this type of power struggle with students exhibiting challenging behaviors. The dialogue that occurs here immediately makes both parties feel like there is a mental scorecard at play and a power struggle naturally ensues. Bringing the discussion back to the original topic at hand is important to handling this specific type of struggle.

Making Empty Threats or Ultimatums

When frustration sets in during a confrontation, power struggles involving threats or ultimatums tend to quickly follow. You may hear or find yourself saying phrases like, “Don’t do __ or else.” Too often this type of message tempts the other person to test the validity of the statement, escalating the situation. Power struggles involving threats can also result in a breakdown of trust that spills over into other aspects of the relationship.

Now that we know how to identify the four types of power struggles, what can we do to avoid them? Continue reading to learn how to loosen your hold on the metaphoric rope during those verbal tugs of war while also helping calm the individual pulling on the opposite end.

A Rational Approach

As soon as you’ve identified that a power struggle has been initiated, quickly de-escalating and avoiding further confrontation is an important next step. These strategies will help you achieve a more calm, rational approach to your side of the conversation.

  • Remind yourself that it takes two to have a struggle. This strategy requires you to understand when it’s okay to step away from the conversation or avoid taking verbal or nonverbal messages personally.
  • Think opportunity versus negativity. If you sense a power struggle is coming, recognize it as an opportunity to react appropriately and strengthen your relationship first, rather than allowing unprofessionalism, negative body language, or a fearful tone of voice to creep in.
  • Use “diffusers.” Diffusers are phrases that help de-escalate a power struggle. Helping the individual feel heard with responses such as, “I hear you,” “Good point,” or “Noted” are great pieces of feedback that help diffuse while also keeping your tone of voice calm throughout the exchange.

Four CARE Principles

Using the four CARE Principles is a great technique for handling power struggles, especially during times when a shared history or irrelevant issues are escalating the exchange. This mental exercise helps you to:

Concentrate on the relevant issue
Acknowledge your own active listening through body language
Respond by paraphrasing and asking questions
Emphasize your attempt to see things from the other person’s perspective

How to Set Limits

Download this free resource for offering positive, realistic, and motivating choices and consequences.


Setting Limits

Setting limits is an appropriate tactic to diffuse and avoid power struggles. This form of intervention is effective when limits are clearly stated, expectations are reasonable, and the limits given are enforceable—not punishable.

Keep these questions in mind when setting limits to help ensure your desired outcome is achieved:

  1. Did you explain the reason for your request?
  2. Did you give clear choices with corresponding consequences?
  3. Were you stated outcomes reasonable?
  4. Did you help motivate the person to make a positive choice?
  5. Did you give ample time for the individual to consider their choices and behavior?
  6. Did you follow through with the stated consequence?

Refer to CPI’s free resource “How to Set Limits” for additional techniques you can apply for limit setting.

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