How to Balance Power in Conflict

Power struggles frequently make their way into our personal interactions and cause conflict. Trying to one-up someone or put them down is never constructive, just as allowing someone to devalue you or overpower you is never constructive. These destructive behaviors can lead to downward spirals both in our relationships and our general conflicts. Instead of engaging in a power struggle, try to balance power relationships, so that each person comes out with their values and self-respect intact.


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    Engage in dialogue. Conversation is key in any sort of power balancing situation. Be clear about what you want and what the other person wants. Stick to facts and avoid insinuating or stating that the other person is wrong or that they're causing a problem. Always focus on the matter, desired behavior or outcome, and not on the personal traits of another.
    • Try to talk face to face and not through text messages, emails, or phone conversations. Facial and body language are an important source of clarification and humanizes the interaction, while technology tends to distance us. It is far easier to forget how we can harm others with a barb or insult through the interface of the computer, whereas seeing someone's reaction in front of us clarifies this instantly.
    • Avoid getting defensive or speaking in negative tones. As soon as you sound whining, victimized or angry, the emotions start to get the better of the conversation.
    • Be sure to listen carefully and to get clarification when necessary. Don't be scared to ask questions, they're a great way to get more insight into the other person and their thoughts. It's also fine to ask for clarification of things that you don't understand, even if it's about the other person's emotions.
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    Bear in mind that both of you might have a valid perspective of a conflict regardless of the power balance. This can be confronting for both of you but it is also empowering, as potentially you have a range of solutions available provided you can accept that both sides are valid perspectives. It would be unusual if there were only one right way to achieve most things.
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    Define the conflict as a mutual matter. From the outset, the person holding the position of more power may be inclined to state the problem as being one caused by the person with less power. This needs to be challenged immediately by defining the problem as a mutual issue, so that there is no attempt to seek one person giving in totally. Here are some ways to get mutual buy-in to the conflict:
    • "We have a problem we both need to resolve."
    • "We seem to have a difference of opinion as to how to go about resolving this matter. We need to find a shared solution."
    • "We need to negotiate over this."
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    Practice restraint. If you are the person holding the high power position, you can limit your own power rather than using it to gain an upper hand. Refrain from continued destructive patterns, either of speech or action. Be aware of your own behavior and regulate yourself. Look for opportunities to express concern for reaching a state of equality.
    • Be aware of the need to pace. This is especially important when an extrovert and an introvert are in a conflict situation. The extrovert will often want a problem solved now and will focus on discussing the problem now until it's solved. An introvert will be more inclined to avoid confrontation and feel cornered, shutting down if the extrovert won't allow time for reflection and postponement of the discussion. In this case, an extrovert may sense a position of power and it is important to recognize the need of the introvert to take time out and think through things first. Of course, the introvert can then assume the position of power if they never come back to the problem, in which case, the extrovert needs to set a time limit to come back to resolution without nagging in the interim.
    • Understand that there is a difference also between people who "think" (analyzing, clarifying and strategizing solutions) and people who "feel" (emotional perspective and focus on feelings). Thinkers will tend to focus on confrontation, while feelers will seek harmony and avoidance of conflict. In this case, balance needs to be found from both sides, so that the feeler stops fearing confrontation all the time, while the thinker stops seeing every situation as needing confrontation.
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    Focus on interdependence. If you find yourself in the low power position, emphasize the interdependence that you and the other person have between each other. High power individuals will likely avoid this and minimize any recognition of interdependence. Point out emotional, behavioral, economic, or other dependence on each other. This is especially important in close or intimate relationships. Focus should not be put on the amount of power or influence that each person has over the other, but on achieving the balance between them and drawing each other into mutual understanding.
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    Rely on calm persistence. Significant change in power relations rarely comes from radical or aggressive confrontation. Careful and thoughtful understanding and planning will likely lead to small but important changes. Avoid rising to bait or getting wound up; instead, focus on coming back to the point that you specifically stated in step one, the want that you're absolutely clear about. Also refer to the want that you understand the other person as having; reminding them that you haven't lost sight of their want is empowering for both of you.
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    Stay actively engaged. Never accept or give in to defeatist attitudes; this is tantamount to effacing yourself and letting the other person use power to belittle you. Remember that no power position is a permanent condition. Be sure to speak your mind but also stick to providing "big picture" and balanced ideas. Stay connected to your values and the outcome that you perceive as worthy throughout times of intensity or difficulty in your dialog with the other person.
    • A conflict should only be avoided or ignored where it is trivial or not important. Otherwise, it needs to be dealt with, whatever your power relationship. An ignored little conflict can soon grow into an enormous one. Don't confuse temporary withdrawal from conflict with being defeatist though––time for reflection and cooling down is always valuable. Just be sure to come back to the matter for final resolution.
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    Seek third party intervention. Sometimes there is a need for outside help, where it is clear that both of you are simply going around in circles, being stubborn or cannot reach a conclusion that is fairly balanced. It may also be necessary if the conflict has become intolerable or is damaging you. It is a sign of strength from both of you call in an arbitrator in such a situation. This could be achieved though mediators or counselors. Never be scared to ask for outside help; it may be just what you need and it is never a poor reflection on your own worth.


  • Parties in conflict very rarely benefit from "blowing up".
  • Never be afraid to agree to disagree. You shouldn't shy away from different points of view; they're just different, not dangerous.
  • Make sure the critical needs of each person are met before attempting such a balance. (this includes personal survival, protection of others, and a maintained sense of self).
  • Power is expanded, not eroded, when you make room for alternative perspectives.
  • Maintain a sense of humor to make the conflict seem less threatening. Never use humor to be condescending or nasty though.


  • Be conscious that some people will do anything to escalate confrontation while others will do anything to avoid it. Both are unbalanced extremes that need careful bringing back into the center. Acknowledge fear of conflict by being reassuring and supportive without letting go of the need for resolution.
  • Some extreme instances of power imbalance may include dangerous or violent situations. If you find yourself in such a case, you must seek help immediately. Every person must have enough respect for themselves and their own personal well-being, no matter how difficult that can seem.

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