Beverly Smallwood

Article Summary:

Five tips on how to resolve a power struggle by creating a “double win”.

Power Struggle? Resolve It with a Double Win

If you have never experienced a power struggle, you have probably never been in a close human relationship. Power struggles occur in every type of relationship – co-workers, boss/subordinate, business competitors, spouses, family members, and sometimes even strangers – in which there is an apparently “scarce resource.”

This scarce resource may be “tangible”. Examples are:

  • money;
  • space
  • equipment
  • fringe benefits

Others may be more intangible, such as:

  • being right
  • having things done a certain way
  • having needs met first
  • looking good or bad in front of bosses or peers


1. Broaden your perspective.
Open your eyes and mind wide enough to see the other’s viewpoint. By taking in more of the total panorama, you gain the ability to appreciate differences as normal, legitimate, non-threatening, negotiable, and even complimentary.

2. Reach a definition of the problem that includes the problems perceived by all involved.
How may two persons with differing styles, opinions, and needs begin to find a mutually-agreeable resolution? Clearly identify the problem, as seen through the eyes of each party. To do this, allow each person, in turn, to describe the events and specific behaviors that he or she believes have contributed to the existing problem. It is critical here to focus on observable behaviors which are changeable, rather than on labels (e.g. irresponsible, inconsiderate) or on assumed internal processes (e.g. hostile, unmotivated). Then, elaborate further on how the problem situations have affected each individual.

3. Set aside preconceived ideas and prejudices.
I know that this is difficult. However, the failure to accomplish it will cause you to miss or misinterpret important information you need to reach a solution that works for everyone. Preconceived ideas and prejudices become filters that distort the facts.

Work to listen openly to the other sides of the story. Acknowledge the fact that yours is not the only way to see things and do things. Closed minds block effective problem solving.

4. Don’t solve the problem too quickly.
An important caveat is, resist the strong temptation to move too quickly through the process. Solutions that stick are those are based on a full discussion of the issues each person feels are important. When you hurry to get out of the discomfort of the situation by agreeing to things you don’t really believe in will only result in more resentment in the future. Making requests for change before the problem has been fully identified is premature and will usually lengthen and/or doom the process.

5. Make action plans concrete.
Proposed solutions should be specific and concrete. Describe suggestions for what should be done differently in order to improve the situation at hand. In addition, request changes that involve positive behaviors rather than avoidance techniques. In other words, it is not enough to request that one stop doing something. One must also describe the suggested ways to start handling the situation in order to make it better.

Setting aside a power struggle takes maturity. A person who thinks maturely is able to look for existing similarities and agreements. Mature people look for superordinate goals, things the people involve can agree on. For instance, there may be a shared goal of accomplishing a given job or task, or of serving customers. When two or more people are grown-up enough to acknowledge that they have both contributed to the ongoing misunderstanding, they take an important step toward being able to work together. They are able to operate by “give and take,” allowing both people to get at least some of what they need and want. By continuing to attack the problem instead of each other, the negotiators can reach an agreement that is workable, or can at least identify an experimental plan that may be revised as time goes on.

The teaching of skills in the resolution of conflict is a critical component of any team-building program. As work teams learn to appreciate the differences between themselves and others, developing habits of creating mutual wins, the way is opened for exciting growth founded on mutual respect and cooperation.

Beverly Smallwood is a licensed psychologist who has worked with Fortune 500, healthcare, and other organizations around the world for over 20 years. Her specialties are leadership development, employee retention, and personal resilience. She’s often featured in such national media as MSNBC, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, FOX, and New York Times. To contact her about speaking, consulting, or coaching, call 877-CAN LEAD (226-5323) or visit her website Magnetic Places, where you can also sign up for her free email newsletter.

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