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When considering the best strategies for managing the inevitable power struggles that we all encounter, I’m reminded of the classic “Argument Sketch” from the Monty Python’s Flying Circus British comedy series. It goes like this, “This isn’t an argument. “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it is…!”

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved through understanding.” – Albert Einstein

We all laugh at the scene because the argument isn’t about anything; it’s just about one person being right and the other being wrong. In real life, we all encounter this type of conflict, or power struggle. Too frequently, we find ourselves reacting angrily and destructively instead of responding compassionately and constructively to both our own reactions and those of the person with whom we’re arguing.

Regardless of whether they are large or small, power struggles drain us of the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual vitality that we need to fuel our health. When we become more interested in being right, true communication has left the house. Instead, tempers are flaring, hearts are racing, blood pressures are rising and stress hormones are flooding the bloodstream. Experiencing this combination of physiological stressors repeatedly creates inflammation and results in disease progression. Our well-being cannot afford the fallout from this debilitating, health-damaging chain reaction that occurs during power struggles.

In order to foster more understanding, support and connection in our relationships, it’s important to take an honest look at the way we deal with conflicts. Depending on how we respond to them, they can serve as either a gateway for greater understanding and cooperation or as a catalyst for divisiveness and disharmony. Unmasking and disarming power struggles in order to promote self-preservation and constructive communication is a great place to start.

Recognizing A Power Struggle

Adults engage in power struggles for the same reason that children act like bullies on the playground. We want control. When winning a particular outcome is more important than the welfare of the person in front of you, you are in a power struggle. Ironically, trying to exert control over another person is not a sign of feeling powerful, but of feeling powerless. Power struggles do not emanate from strength. They are the direct result of feeling frustrated, fearful or insecure.

In their book The Heart of the Soulco-authors Gary Zukav and Linda Francis compiled a list of helpful questions that you can ask yourself to determine if you are in a power struggle. The list includes: Am I feeling right? Am I certain the other person is wrong? Am I blaming others? Am I feeling distance from another person? Am I attached to an outcome? Do I want to win?

They wrote, “If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you are in a power struggle.”

How to Respond with Self-Awareness

We all have fears to confront and doubts to challenge, but when we engage in power struggles, we shut down our emotional awareness. Instead of turning toward our painful feelings in order to understand them, we turn away from them to avoid discomfort and vulnerability. As we divert our energies toward making a case against another, we wind up getting stuck in our hurtful thoughts and defensive opinions. When this occurs, the hope of a healing connection takes a back seat to the loneliness of divisiveness and disconnection.

We can think of our emotions as energy-in-motion. They motivate our behaviors to approach, avoid or attack. When experiencing avoiding emotions, we choose to move away from something. These emotions can result in withdrawing, dismissing or rejecting behaviors. Attack emotions of hatred, anger and contempt often result in hurtful, dominating and abusive behaviors. On the other hand, the approach emotions of compassion, trust and love can lead to behaviors of encouraging, trusting, and connecting.

During any conflict with another person, our primary task is self regulation, which is the ability to act in our own long-term best interest and to take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. Self-regulation involves the ability to calm ourselves down so that we can make choices that are consistent with our deepest values. We do this by closely attending to what we are feeling in order to consciously decide how we will express those feelings to another. Otherwise, if left unchecked, disruptive emotions such as hostility, jealousy, and resentment can quickly morph into blaming, shaming and manipulating behaviors.

In order to promote greater self-regulation we can turn to the advice of the late Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist and world-renowned expert on conflict resolution. In his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Lifehe suggests three strategies for increasing self-awareness and the ability to respond to another constructively.

The first strategy involves practicing non-judgmental listening as we closely observe what is being expressed. This is easier said than done. It’s difficult to give unbiased and open attention to another when we feel threatened. Our rising emotions press us to mute what they are saying as we simultaneously turn up the volume of our self-talk. This usually includes silently rehearsing our rebuttal, which precludes any effective listening. Unfortunately, when we do this, we block out the valuable information we will need in order to understand the other person’s point of view. Offering our full attention and acknowledging what another is sharing does not imply passive agreement. It conveys respect. It is precisely this respect that opens the door to further exchanges.

Rosenberg also advocates taking responsibility for your emotions. Self-awareness and self-acceptance are increased when we refuse to blame others or ourselves. It is only by listening compassionately to our own feelings that we can identify what we truly want or need.

The third strategy requires us to summon the courage to express our needs honestly, calmly and directly. Kindness to self and others is the basis for all effective communication. Rosenberg writes, “What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others, based on a mutual giving from the heart.”

To keep an open mind and a soft heart when conflicts arise try responding using these tips:

Stay Curious

Do your best to listen without interrupting. Remember that the goal is to gather as much information as possible in order to clearly understand the other person’s point of view. Think of it as acquiring inspiration for cooperating, not ammunition for overpowering.

Ground Yourself

As every trained singer knows, in preparation for reaching that high note, you will need to find your supported balance by planting your feet firmly on the ground. This has an immediate stabilizing effect that will calm and center you. As conflicts escalate, follow this example as you return your awareness again and again to re-centering yourself in the present moment. A high-tension posture (leaning forward with tense muscles and furrowed brow) feeds disruptive and aggressive emotions. Instead, relax your shoulders, and facial muscles. When your breathing becomes too fast and shallow or if you find yourself holding your breath, focus on breathing in and out more slowly and deeply.

Convey Respect

Catch yourself when you discover that your energy is going toward trying to change the other person. Step out of the drama and back into the compassionate listening of a colleague, not an adversary. Choose positive, sensitive language as you paraphrase your understanding of what was said. Ask, “Did I get that right?” When it is your turn to convey your needs, try to present them as requests and not as demands.

These adjustments can encourage more constructive, civil, and effective communication. Practicing goodwill during difficult times has a contagious quality. It implicitly invites a matching effect of more tenderness and less tension between you and another person.

Remember to Laugh

A light heart is not a small gift. A married couple recently shared with me a personal story of how humor snapped them out of an escalating argument. As their voices became louder and louder their dog positioned himself between them and started to howl at the top of his lungs. They were so startled by this, they both broke into laughter. As they comforted their dog, they were softened by the humor of the situation and realized how grateful they were for the timely interruption. (See Ornish Living article, Laugh Often and Unleash the Benefits)

Keep Choosing Peace over Pain

When we find ourselves in a power struggle today or in the future, we can gently remind ourselves that the price we pay in energy dollars just doesn’t add up to good health economics.

Our spirits will be lifted every time we remember this simple intention, “You are more important to me than my winning this argument. I almost forgot that.” In the words of Albert Einstein, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved through understanding.”

What constructive ways of communicating have you found to be effective when dealing with power struggles?

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

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