Defusing Interpersonal Power Struggles

I became interested in defusing power struggles when I was having power struggles with my teenage son. I thought there must be a better way. At the same time, I was conducting workshops on classroom behavior management, and knew that this is a common problem which teachers encounter every day. I tried some strategies with my son, and his behavior changed. But one day I was tired, and lazy, and reverted to my old ways, and guess what… he reverted to his old ways as well. I renewed my efforts, and his behavior changed back. So I added some strategies to my classroom behavior management workshop. School personnel responded favorably and wanted more. I now conduct workshops which are attended by mental health professionals, teachers, administrators, criminal justice professionals, and people interested in improving the climate in their home or work settings. Here are a few tips to help get started.

Basic principles of psychology tell us that people do not respond to reality, but rather to their interpretation of reality. Therefore, we need to understand their reality to interpret the situation. Typically, we make assumptions about what is important to them based on what is important to us. This may lead to erroneous interpretations. Instead, we need to explicitly ask about what is important to them, and also ask about unstated assumptions. We do this by first stating our facts. Then we either state our interpretation, or ask their interpretation of those facts.

Let me highlight a few strategies which helped resolve the potential power struggle. The parent started by presenting the facts (curfew violation) and soliciting feedback about the cause. The parent persisted in determining the underlying source of the conflict without accusing or lecturing. They elicited and provided reasons for their concern and provided choices to resolve the issue. Let’s contrast that to an all too frequent argument style where we present our viewpoint and the other person attacks perceived weaknesses in our argument. We only listen to their ideas long enough to find a weakness. Then, we cut them off to demonstrate the superiority of our viewpoint. They do likewise, and the process escalates into a full scale heated argument and nothing gets resolved.

I recently took a fly fishing course with the Colorado Mountain Club, and was struck by the similarity between power struggles and fly fishing. In the fly fishing class, we learned that fly selection is very important. What works varies by location, season, target fish, time of day etc. We learned how to cast to get the lure where the fish are likely to be. We also learned how to set the hook when we got a bite, and reel in the fish. "Button pushing" children or colleagues can be very similar. They know what kind of barb to throw, and when and where to get your goat. They know how to set the hook to pull you in, and how to land you. Since that fly fishing course, when I see myself getting hooked into a power struggle, I have found it useful, to imagine that I am the fish. They are fishing for me, tossing the bait where they think I might bite. If I take the bait, they win and I am caught. I must learn to either recognize the bait, or throw the hook. Make sure you don’t end up in the “frying pan”!

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