How to Avoid Power Struggles

March 22, 2020
Terry Vittone
Hands clasped together

NOTE: This article originally appeared in full on the CPI US website.
It’s a situation many of us will recognise—involved in a tug of war, pulling hard on a metaphoric rope in an effort to gain or retain power. Whether in a professional, public, or personal situation, we may find ourselves regretting the thought process that convinced us to become involved in the struggle. 

Here we look at how to avoid taking the bait, rethink our willingness to ‘pick up the rope, ‘and learn to utilise key defusers, visualisation exercises, action steps, and other powerful strategies for setting effective limits that can change our interactions from negative to positively productive. Central to the outcomes that may result from a power struggle is the concept of the Integrated Experience, which means that our behaviours and attitudes inexorably influence and are influenced by those exhibited by the other person in the struggle.

The first step is to identify those people with whom we find ourselves getting into power struggles on a regular basis. Perhaps the people that immediately come to mind are those in your care, such as your students, clients, patients, or residents. Maybe you found yourself thinking of the parents or legal guardians of the people in your care. Other folks who come to mind might include your colleagues, service providers, or possibly even your boss. On the personal side, perhaps a parent, spouse, or child comes to mind.
Always remember that struggles do not occur in isolation. They influence others.

Essentially there are four key types of power struggle:

1. Defending authority and credibility

To identify power struggles that involve defending your authority or credibility, think of statements like "Who are you to tell me what to do?" or "I don't want to hear what you think as a nurse. I want to talk to the doctor." These may sound familiar, and one of your first responses to this kind of challenge may be to take defensive physical actions, like a change in your body language, the tone and volume of your voice, or your rate and rhythm of speech.

Watch that body language!

Is body language a giveaway that a power struggle is happening? Do you find yourself crossing your arms and closing yourself off from that other person? Maybe you strike a defensive posture like putting your hands on your hips. Maybe you roll your eyes. You may find yourself shaking or pointing a finger at that other person, maybe shaking your head in disagreement with what they're saying. You might find yourself staring off into space or avoiding direct eye contact with that person, or maybe you even start to walk away or turn your back.

Watch those paraverbals!

Did you ever hear the phrase “It’s not what they said, it’s how they said it,” spoken in anger and instantly understood the exasperation behind it? A human voice can communicate many challenging attitudes and emotions, regardless of the words that are spoken.

2. Personal button pushing

When the person we are struggling with knows us very well, they probably have a keen sense of how to engage in behaviour that gets under our skin and pushes our buttons. They may engage in this behaviour until they get the kind of reaction they seek, which is for their ‘opponent’ to feel uncomfortable and back down.

Take a moment to think about behaviours that push your buttons and why they so effectively manage to disturb you. It could be as simple as a comment about your appearance or as serious as a threat to your children, but in any instance, the key principle is to rationally detach and maintain professionalism by not taking it personally when those buttons are pushed.

3. Past history and irrelevant issues

Two people who have a history of struggling for power often have something like a mental scorecard in mind, keeping close track of the perceived slights that have accumulated from past encounters and combining them into a collective grudge against the other. To determine if this type of struggle is occurring think about comments that may give away this kind of power struggle. 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?”
In this type of struggle, your opponent is using comments like these to throw you off track and make you lose sight of the original issue.
One way to deal with this third kind of power struggle is to follow the “Four CARE Principles.” This mental exercise helps you to Concentrate on the relevant issue, Acknowledge your own active listening through facial expression and body posture, Respond by asking questions and paraphrasing back what the other person has said, and finally, to Empathise by trying to see things from the other perspective.

4. Empty threats and ultimatums

The anger stirred up by a confrontation during a struggle may not bring out the best in either party. The strength of this emotion may cause a person to state extreme consequences, for example, or say 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 that we know the four types of power struggles, what can we do to avoid them?

Firstly, you need to realise that it takes two to create a struggle. We can choose not to participate by simply not picking up the rope. Instead, we can try to improve our rapport and think positively rather than fearfully.
We can also choose to change our perspective from one of negativity to one of opportunity, in an attempt to improve the relationship by modelling conciliatory behaviour and professionalism.
Stay calm and silent and use what’s known as a ‘diffuser’. These are signs that show the individual in crisis that we take them and their message seriously. When we talk about using a diffuser, examples 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, if your nonverbals match what it is you're saying, and your demeanour remains calm.

Why limit setting is always appropriate

Formally defined, limit setting is a verbal intervention technique in which a person is offered choices and consequences. It’s important to remember that limit setting is an appropriate response or intervention for a power struggle if we make sure:

  • That our limits are always clearly and simply stated.
  • That our limits are reasonable both for the situation and the person with whom we’re struggling.
  • That our limits are enforceable and entail consequences if they are broken.

It’s important of not confusing consequences with punishment. A consequence in this context is defined as the outcome or result of a person’s choices rather than a punishment.

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