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by Lee Ellis
I’ve been thinking about this blog on power struggles for a month or so with the plan to publish it in January. How ironic that I got to experience one first hand during the Christmas Holidays. The good news is that I’ve been doing really well in avoiding them for several years and thought I’d mastered this interaction that some of my friends like to call “a dance of fear and pride.” But this one hit me in my soft spot and I failed to restrain myself. I’m sorry to say that in the heat of the moment, I did not follow my own advice.
The Spiral of a Power Scenario
Of all times, it happened near the end of a very meaningful holiday visit with family. Perhaps you have realized it’s when relatives gather that we are the most vulnerable—some of those power struggles can lay dormant for years, just waiting for the right time to spring up in full force. And that’s what happened to me—after all, I knew I was right and just had to share the “facts” to prove it.
Of course my “facts” were only misguided opinions to the other person, and his were the same for me. Our discussions swirled like a cat chasing its tail and with each circuit, the crescendo of emotional debate just got stronger and louder. I knew what was happening and I could see Mary’s discomfort, but I just had to set him straight. Eventually we saw that neither was gaining ground and it was with the best interest of family and friendship that we agreed that underneath it all we both valued the same things; we just had different perspectives on how to get there.
The Power Struggle Defined
Power struggles are not limited to families. They are often at the core of my leadership coaching assignments. In fact, some of the most negative transactions that we can get caught in are power struggles. To an outside observer they can be very obvious, but when you are in one, you are blinded by the emotions—usually relating to a threatened ego.
“On the surface power struggles are all about being right. Underneath, they are touching emotional sore points that produce strong reactions.” [Tweet This]
I mentioned the cat chasing its tail and if you look at the diagram below, you can see how emotions and behaviors can quickly spiral out of control.
What is not seen is the circular motion cycling like a closed loop of one person’s behavior arousing the other person’s feelings (negative emotions), causing an ever escalating of emotions and behaviors as shown in the example below.
What’s the solution?
How do you avoid power struggles and how do you break them?
- Recognize what is happening. Most likely you “know you are right” and believe very strongly that the other person is wrong. Check your attitude and energy. What are you thinking and feeling? Can you see that though the other person may be thinking differently, they are likely feeling similar to you? Recognize this is not a winnable battle and in fact the only way to win is to admit you have some responsibility for what is happening.
- Humble yourself and take ownership for your part. As difficult as it may seem, this is the only way to come out of this battle ahead. When you admit that you are not perfect and that you have made some mistakes—which clearly you have—then the struggle is broken. But don’t be sparing and protective of yourself. Take ownership for everything you can think of that could possibly be your shortcoming or transgression.
Changing Up the Power Game
This is where an illustration from judo can be very helpful. If two people are pushing against each other as hard as they can—as in a power struggle—and one relaxes and steps back, the other person has to do something different or they will fall on their face. When you give it up and take ownership for being “wrong”, the other person cannot disagree with you. Well, actually they can and often do. Once you own your part, you free the other person to own their part and often they will actually disagree with you that it was entirely your fault. Now that’s real judo.
What makes this so hard is that it requires humility, and that’s so difficult. On the surface it may seem like you are going to be the loser, but in reality you were already losing the battle. Taking ownership for your part is the only way that you can come out a winner and in the process you allow the other person to win as well. The Arbinger Institute has done a lot of work in this area and this quote sums up what we have been saying here.
“…no conflict can be solved so long as all parties are convinced they are right. Solution is possible only when at least one party begins to consider how he might be wrong.”** [Tweet This]
The Humble Conclusion
There is great strength in humility—enough to make you a winner in 2017. Do you have the courage and confidence needed to be humble? So what is your experience with power struggles?
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