POWER STRUGGLES –
A CLASH OF WILLS?
We’ve all experienced being involved in a power struggle with another person. The “other” can be a partner, friend, colleague, child, or even an “OS friend.” The “who with” part doesn’t really matter because the dynamics of the struggle, and the possible resolutions and results are the same. Let’s start by defining power struggle. On an international level, think of the centuries old Arab-Israeli conflict. How about the Irish religious wars? In the USA, think of the Hatfields and McKoys. Think of the Roadrunner and Wile Coyote. On a personal level, think of that person you argue with a lot. Now we’re getting somewhere! Still stuck? Think of some of the more visible OS bloggers who always seem to be contrarians.
The information below is based on my years of working with children with behavior problems, and of teaching countless numbers of teachers some strategies for effective classroom management. Most of the skills are generic, and transfer well to adult-adult interactions.
A power struggle results when an individual is met with a response from another and reacts with his/her own feelings rather than with rational consideration. This is easiest to describe in adult/child interactions when the adult is met with a defiant response from a child. This immediately gives rise to feelings in the adult. This is normal, and the normal response from the adult is to react from this feeling level. At this point, the struggle is on. The first step in averting a power struggle is to recognize when one is beginning, and then to take action. Here are some signs and signals of the beginning of the end.
Signals and Feelings:
- A knot or tightness in my stomach
- A sudden muscle tenseness
- A flushed feeling
- Conversation that includes “yes, buts…”
- Conversation that involves raised voices
- My jaw quivers a little; there is a tenseness
- Finishing the other person’s sentences
- Using words/phrases such as “you always…”
- Needing to get in the last word
Each of us has some personal early signs of feelings that are a precursor to engaging in a power struggle. Learn to identify yours, and the battle is half-over.
Motivation to End the Struggle:
Learning to identify one’s motives in interactions is tricky. It’s almost impossible to do when one is in the middle of the battle. At that point it is survival of the fittest (or smartest, or authoritativenest, or oldest, or wisest, or smartest, or most manipulativenest, etc). Many of us have some bizarre need to be right. Some of us are control-freaks. Some of us just don’t know any other way to interact. Many of us are in a slightly developmentally regressed state (see my previous post on sado-masochistic relationships:
Also, if alcohol/drugs are involved then you (or the other party) are definitely in a somewhat regressed psychological state. The best way to defuse power struggles is to learn ahead of time what your basic motives typically are when you get into an argument. Knowing this ahead of time allows you to recognize your motive when the argument starts, and then to back out of it. A lot of times the other party will actually give you a chance to quit the argument, but because you were not clear of your own motivation to start with, you just keep it going. How many times have my kids said “Okay”, and then I come back on them and repeat something like “I mean it too” and then they mimic me, and then…oh boy! Suggestion: stop here and self-identify your usual motives in keeping the power struggles (argument) going.
THREE LEVELS OF BEHAVIOR AND SUGGESTED RESPONSES:
1) Developmental Defiance: This applies mostly to children. Conflict and limit testing is a normal part of growing up. It’s irritating, but not serious. It will; however, result in colossal power struggles if one party (you) cannot stay out of the struggle. These things are also typical in adult relationships. We all get on each others nerves occasionally, say something we shouldn’t, overreact, etc. Here are some possible strategies to defuse these types of power struggles:
SILENCE – best strategy, least used. Just keep your mouth shut!
PLANNED IGNORING – you heard it, but you’re not taking the bait.
HYPODERMIC AFFECTION – just say something positive, that you really mean.
TENSION DECONTAMINATION THROUGH HUMOR – do not, I repeat do not, confuse humor with sarcasm
DIRECT APPEAL – “I’m really *-------- tired, angry, sad, beat…*, could we talk later?”
PERMISSION/AUTHORITATIVE VERBOT – with children only. Allow the very behavior you want them to stop.
ACTIVE LISTENING – reflect back to them what they are saying (content) and their feelings (best you can tell) in your own words. No Parroting Please!!
SHARE PERCEPTION AND “LET IT GO” – e.g., we’re repeating ourselves and starting to argue and not getting anywhere…”
2) Reactive Defiance: This is a situation where the other person thinks, feels, believes he/she has been mistreated, slighted, wronged, etc. They may be right or wrong; it doesn’t matter. Possible solutions to avoiding a power struggle include all of those listed in the category above, plus these:
SILENCE – yep, it works here too!
INTERPRETATION AS INTERFERENCE - restate what you meant (but only one time)
“OWN” YOUR PART – maybe ,just maybe, you have a part in this. Just “own up” to it, and then shut up.
THIRD PERSON TAKE OVER works best when dealing withchildren
TAKE A BREAK – both of the parties just need to stop a minute, and then try again.
DESCRIBE YOUR BEHAVIOR AND THE OTHER PERSON’S BEHAVIOR- and then be quiet.
FANTASY ROLE PLAY – “WHAT IF…?” – “what will happen if we keep arguing like this?”
3) “Oppositional Personality” Defiance: This is a tough one. There are some personality types that are prone to engaging in constant power struggles. Remember though, it takes two to tango. My mom was one of these types – always saying provocative or mean-spirited things, so I grew up with it. These people really need professional help (basically a giant wake-up call); however, it rarely happens. They might be what one would consider abusive personalities. Try the strategies above and here’s a few more:
EXIT THE SITUATION AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE – you’ll never win the argument!
RESTATE EXPECTATION AND DEPART - Remember: Any limits on behavior should be clear, concise, and enforceable.
“I” MESSAGE – “I feel_________when you___________because it makes me feel that______________________. Example: I feel irritated when you yell at me because it makes me feel unimportant to you. Remember: How (volume, tone, cadence) we say things is important.
THIRD PARTY DISCUSSION/ASSISTANCE DEVELOP PLANS AND SUPPORTS WELL IN ADVANCE OF BEHAVIOR
PRAYER ( I am very serious here)
Conclusions: We all get into power struggles. The two ingredients to ending them are: 1) recognize those early signals that a struggle is starting, and 2) understand your own motives in the issue. With these two things in mind, try one of the above strategies, and defuse that struggle before it even starts. Let me know how things work for you.
© GWG 2008