Power in Interpersonal Conflict
by Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot Burton, eds.
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Power in Interpersonal Conflict," Chapter Three in Interpersonal Conflict, 2nd ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1985. 67-90.
In Chapter Three, Hocker and Wilmot discuss the role of power in interpersonal conflict. They begin by observing that people have very different attitudes towards power. Some take a positive view of power, and associate it with self-control, charisma, political skill, or control over others. Other people take negative views toward power, viewing it as aggression or a limited resource. They are reluctant to discuss power or to acknowledge that they use it. There are common ways that people deny they are using power. They may deny being responsible for sending a message, arguing that they somehow were not themselves--that they were drunk or angry, for instance. They may deny or "forget" that they even sent a message. They may deny that the message was sent to another person or was regarding a specific situation, claiming instead that they were speaking in general or merely thinking aloud.
The authors assume that power is present in all social interactions. One of the main functions of communication is to influence the other party. They argue that power arises from interdependency in interpersonal relationships. Power in itself is neither positive nor negative, though it can be used in productive or destructive ways. Conflicts are fundamentally about balancing power. Productive conflict resolution seeks to expand the parties' power, rather than to redistribute a fixed amount of power.
"Power depends on controlling currencies that other people need."(p. 72) Bases of individual power in conflict include expertise, resource control, interpersonal linkages, personal qualities, and intimacy. Often individuals fail to appreciate their own sources of power. This can lead them to resort to desperate and destructive low-power tactics. A clearer sense of their available power broadens peoples' sense of their own options, and makes for more productive conflicts
While power is typically thought of a something that people have, the authors stress that power is a product of interpersonal relations, and is always relative to some relationship. Power arises from the conjunction of one person's resources with another person's wants, needs or goals, that is, from one person's dependence on another. "The concept of the powerful person often leads others to act in manipulative or covert ways because they do not acknowledge their own part in helping to make that person powerful."(p. 76) The dependent party can reduce the more powerful party's power by changing their goal, or by developing alternative ways of reaching their goal.
It is very difficult to measure power, since there are so many ways of exercising it and it is often used covertly. Indeed, most past research has succeeded mainly in measuring peoples' perceptions or authority expectations. Often seemingly weak behaviors can be very powerful. The successes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King show how powerful "weak" or passive behaviors can be. Many people exercise power in passive-aggressive ways, significantly influencing a situation without appearing to do anything overt. The authors suggest one "kernel of wisdom" to remember when attempting to assess people's power: "assume that you and your conflict partners all measure each others' power differently, disagree on who has the most, and disagree on who should have the most."(p. 83)
"If one party has more power than the other, the conflict is unbalanced; many of the choices the parties then make are attempts to alter these imbalances."(p. 83) Constant high power can be corrupting, and lead to destructive conflicts. The high power party may become power-hungry, pursuing power for its own sake. They may use their power in illicit ways. Their own sense of self-worth may become implicated in having power. They may become committed to preserving their power by perpetuating others' dependency. Persons with high power can deny that they are exercising power, or can deny that their use of power is harming the weaker party. For instance, an employer might claim that by firing an employee they were really doing what was best for that employee.
Constant low power can also corrupt, making the powerless party more prone to use destructive power balancing techniques. Powerless people are more likely to feel they have nothing to lose, and to resort to violence. They may use passive-aggressive tactics. "Lower power parties will sometimes destroy a relationship as the ultimate move to bring about a balance of power."(p. 85) Such high and low power tactics can reinforce each other and bring about a destructive conflict spiral.
Parties in an unequal relationship can work to make the relationship more equitable, work to convince each other that the existing relationship actually is equitable, or end the relationship. Productive ways to balance power include empowering the weaker party, having the stronger party limit their own power or increase their dependence on the weaker party. A high power party may refuse to use certain sources of power for the sake of maintaining balance and harmony in a relationship. The higher power party can also increase their dependence on the other party, thereby increasing the other party's power. Lower power parties can be empowered by developing their sources of power, for example, by developing an area of expertise. Weaker parties can be empowered indirectly by investing third parties with the power to intervene on their behalf. Strengthening the parties' commitment to maintaining their relationship can help transcend power imbalances. Such commitment helps prevent either of the parties from seeking to maximize their individual power, and keep them motivated and willing to do what is needed to address power imbalances when they arise.