Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Effective Responses to
 Power Struggles

How to respond to someone
who has to be "right"

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/power.htm

Updated  01-30-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers (a) perspective on "power struggles," (b) options for responding effectively to them, and (c) responses to avoid. It assumes you're familiar with...

       This brief YouTube video introduces what you'll find in this article:


       How would you describe a "power struggle" to an average 11-year-old? What do you feel is the difference - if any - between a power struggle and an argument? A debate? In the context of relationships, how would you explain conversational "power"?

       Premise - for our purposes, let's say that a "power struggle" occurs when two (or more) people try to convince the other/s that they each "know best," or "are right." The person with the most power can make the other/s agree and do what s/he wants them to do.

       The opposite of power struggling is win-win problem-solving. This is a mutually-respectful process where each person (a) identifies what they each need, and (b) brainstorms a way for both sets of needs to be voluntarily met "well enough." The combined "power' of both/all people is directed towards filling their respective needs.

       In typical power struggles, one or both people don't feel really heard by the other. Person "A" states something, and person "B" says "Yes but..." or similar. Instead of both focusing on their respective needs, they focus on persuading the other to "give in" or "see it my way."

       Another payoff for some power-struggle fans is simply the excitement of verbal combat. Have you ever met someone who seemed to relish arguing and debating about almost anything? "Winning" may be less important to them than simply hooking you into an entertaining high-energy competition. In a sense they're trying to persuade you to engage with them, whether you want to or not. 

       Two annoying aspects of typical power struggles are (a) one or both people feeling disrespected, and (b) one partner not agreeing to stop the struggle. ("Alex follows me around the house yammering at me.") Has this happened to you?

       Can you think of a recent power struggle with an adult or child? Recall how you felt as it progressed - Frustrated? Irritated? Disrespected? Unheard? Combative? Weary? Determined? Energized? Amused? Challenged? Did you get your needs met? Did you feel like a "winner"; or "loser"?

       Premises - a person  who needs to engage others in a power struggle is probably ruled by a well-meaning false self. Where this is true, using logic to respond to them is as pointless as arguing with an fanatic.

       It takes two (or more) people to maintain a power struggle. If you won't participate, the struggle stops. Implication - you can decide at any time whether to struggle or not. The key is awareness of yourself and your communication process.

       What communication choices do you have with someone who wants a power struggle?  

Response Options

  • Use your awareness skill to recognize that you're beginning a power struggle. Remind yourself what that means (above).

  • Mentally review these basic response options until they become automatic.

  • Identify what you feel. Your emotions point to what you need now.

  • Identify what you need - specifically - with this person. To vent? Learn? Persuade? Disengage? Confront? Problem solve? Then choose one or more responses like these.

"(Name), are you willing to hear some personal feedback?" If you get "No," you have a different problem to respond to.

"(Name), I'm not interested in a power struggle / debate / argument / fight now."

"You and I see this (topic) differently. Let's agree to disagree, OK?"

"What do you need from me right now?"

"Whose needs do you see as most important now - yours or mine?" (The best answer is "Both of ours.")

"So you think / feel / need ___________."  (This is a hearing check, not an agreement.")

"I would rather problem-solve this than debate it with you."

"(Name), what's your definition of a 'power struggle'?"

"What's your opinion on how to best deal with a values conflict?"

"How would you describe the process between us now?"

"(Name), I need to change the subject."

"What does it mean to you that I don't see this the way you do?"

"Sorry, I'm not willing to (do what you want) now (and I'm done talking about it)."

"I sense that a false self is guiding you now (and I'd rather talk with your true Self)."

      With responses like these, expect the other person to "resist" - i.e. to bluster, deny, argue, accuse you, whine, manipulate, complain, threaten, go quiet (shut down), avoid eye contact, repeat themselves, play "Yes. but...", deflect, change the focus, etc. When they do, respond with respectful empathic listening, and  calmly restate your original response. Repeat this sequence until you fill your needs or your needs change.

  • The "I'm Right!" Exercise. Try this safe, powerful way to illustrate the silliness and futility of "I'm right! No, I am!" battles:

  • Agree you have a power struggle, without blame or guilt;

  • Stand and face your partner from about 12" away. Each of you make an "L" shape with your right arm so your forearms are vertical and touching.

  • Clasp your right hands gently, and hold comfortable eye contact.

  • One of you start by saying with some firmness "I'm right." As you do, rotate both your arms leftward to horizontal. Don't use physical strength and don't resist - this is not a physical contest. Do not smile.

  • With steady eye contact, the second person says "No, *I'M* right!" and rotates both your arms rightward 180 degrees to horizontal.

  • The first person says more forcefully "NO! I Am RIGHT!" and rotates both arms back 180 degrees to horizontal.

  • Repeat this sequence four or more times, escalating the tone and power of your voice and the speed of arm-rotation each time. Keep steady eye contact, and don't joke or grin.

  • See what you feel and think, and discuss this together as teammates. Usually you'll both wind up laughing...

       This exercise vividly illustrates (vs. explains) the pointlessness of arguing - i.e. trying to persuade each other "You're wrong and I'm right!"  A variation is to say "I (did 'x'" and rotate) and the other person says "No, you didn't," and rotates back)  Try that for 6-8 times, and see what you feel... This exercise can be specially helpful with stubborn (insecure and/or bored) kids.

       Think of someone who's tried to hook you into a power struggle recently. Imagine getting steady eye contact and using one or more of these response options with the person. What do you think s/he would do? How would you feel? Note that if you initiate a power struggle, you're probably controlled by a false self. Your best response then is to make freeing your true Self a high priority!

Responses to Avoid

       Because power struggles are inherently antagonistic and combative, they invite high-energy subselves to disable your Self. They are apt to make lose-lose responses like these:

"You just don't get it, do you?"

"You're not listening to me. What I'm trying to get you to see is ________."

"You're way off base / nuts / crazy / prejudiced / ignorant!"

"No one in their right mind would believe that!"

"You'll say anything to have the last word, won't you?"

"You love arguing / debating / playing 'yes, but...' / don't you?"

"You can't stand being wrong, can you?"

"Blah, blah, blah..."

"You've made that point about ten times now."

These are disrespectful, provocative "You" messages (put downs) guaranteed to stoke the battle.


       This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on the popular sport of "power struggles," (b) effective ways to respond to them, and (c) responses to avoid. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • knowing what you feel and need,

  • clarity on your mutual personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

       Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

       For more ideas, see these response-options to an arguer, an egotist, and a lecturer..

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