In conflict situations people often feel completely powerless. The other person seems to have more money, more support, more energy, more important friends, and all those things are up against poor little old me! But the funny thing about power is that it is more in the mind than in reality. If you think you’ve got power, then you’ve got it. If you think that you don’t have it, then you don’t! The perception of power is more important than any actual power that people have.
Power is also a very fickle concept. It is not black and white, in that you don’t either have it or you don’t have it. In any interaction power is constantly shifting and changing between the people, and different kinds of power come and go at different times and in different contexts. For example, let’s look at the power of a George, a 3 year old boy. If George has a tantrum at home, his parents will probably be able to ignore it and George will not be able to use his behaviour as a way of getting what he wants. However, if George has the same tantrum in the middle of the local supermarket, George’s parents are probably going to be doing everything they can to stop George’s behaviour, including possibly giving him what he wants! The situation and the audience makes a difference to whether George’s behaviour gives him power over his parents.
George’s power in this situation is a kind of ‘nuisance power’. People who have very few other sources of power can often use ‘nuisance power’ as a way of taking some control over their conflict. Another good example of nuisance power is a person who has a conflict with a big organisation – they may not have the resources to take the organisation to court, but they can stand outside their office with a big placard saying negative things about the organisation. They can go on 60 minutes and do a very public expose about how badly the organisation treated them. This type of behaviour is kind of an adult version of George’s tantrum, played out very publicly in order to get attention.
There are many different kinds of power that a person might have in a conflict situation. We often think of power as being based in resources (e.g. more money) or authority (e.g. a more senior rank). However, people without that sort of power can still have other kinds of power. It is true that knowledge is power – the more information you have or can access, the more you have to work with. A person can also have power over the conflict process – if you can control when and where the conflict interaction takes place, or who else is present, this gives you power. Even the ability just to walk away and refuse to interact is a form of power. Personal and relationship power is also particularly useful in conflict. If a person is well liked and respected, and can motivate others to support them, and has strong communication skills, they are likely to be very powerful in a conflict situation.
Next time you are feeling powerless, think carefully about the different sources of power that might be available to you. You might be more powerful than you think! And remember, sometimes the perception of power is more important than the reality – so think powerfully!