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  • Jonathan E. Pearl

The Powers that be!

Updated: May 27


Virtually all conflicts directly or indirectly concern power. Conflict is often a means of seeking or maintaining the balance or imbalance of power in relationships. It may also be waged as a symbolic expression of one’s identity and right to self-determination. Power is often used as leverage in achieving one’s goals. It influences the types of conflicts to which people of differing levels of power engage in, and the relative availability of the strategies and tactics they employ.

The most powerful in our society largely determine what is considered to be important, fair, and reasonable in most settings and so shape and control many methods of dispute resolution. The threat that an unresolved dispute could ultimately be decided by a powerful third party (i.e. a judge) is often a strong driver towards out-of-court settlements.

Because of its ubiquity in conflict resolution it is crucial to consider the nature of power in mediation.


First, Some Misconceptions

- Power is rarely located in places: parliament buildings, boardrooms, behind lecterns, in embassies, in police stations etc. A secondary school teacher who cannot gain the respect of his pupils will have no power merely by standing on a raised dais at the front of the room. The board chairman’s control does not emanate from his location at the head of the table, or the ability to wield a gavel. And countless civil uprisings have shown official ‘important’ buildings can quickly become overrun, even when they are heavily guarded. What’s more, the power these places symbolise is often unaffected as a result.

- That power flows in one direction (usually from the top down), and that individuals with differing levels of power do not mutually influence one another. Huge power can be leveraged from the purposeful cooperation of the least powerful – as witnessed by the popular peaceful uprising against the British Empire led by the loin-cloth-wearing Mahatma Gandhi. Power can be wielded by a penniless begging child who metaphorically ‘tugs at our heartstrings’, or by a young girl like Malala Yousafzai who stands up against tyranny.

- That power is rarely fixed or inherent. It requires context. A preacher has huge influence (and power) over his congregation on a Sunday morning but won’t necessarily have the same power when queuing up to buy theatre tickets on a Saturday night.

- That power is a scarce resource - a fixed or finite entity of which there is only so much to go around.


Physical Power in Nature

In the animal world power usually wins. The lion will dominate the gazelle and the bird will dominate the beetle. But interestingly Frans de Waal’s studies of non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, have shown that the size and strength of male chimps is an extremely poor predictor of which animals will dominate the troop. Instead, the ability to forge social connections and engage in "diplomacy" is often much more important than physical strength.

Being physically imposing can help in a negotiation, but not if you don’t have smarts.


Power Dynamics

Deutsch (1973) described power as “a relational concept functioning between the person and his or her environment”. In other words, real power is measured not only by the characteristics of the parties involved in a given conflict, nor solely by the characteristics of the conflict itself, but by the interaction of these factors, and more.


Resources and the Skills to use them

Lewicki, Litterer, Minton, and Saunders (1994) distinguish among three aspects of power: power bases, power use, and influence strategies. Wealth, social capital, physical strength, weapons, intelligence, knowledge, legitimacy, organizational skills, allies, all represent resources of ‘potential power’. ‘Kinetic power’ involves the active employment of strategies and tactics of influence, which are the manner in which the resources are put to use. Such strategies include (for instance) the power of persuasion, exchanges, legitimacy, friendliness, ingratiation, praise, assertiveness, inspirational appeal, consultation, pressure, and the use of coalitions.


Power Plays

One of the most common strategies or ‘power plays’ in negotiation is making the first offer. The probability of making a first offer is related to one’s confidence and sense of control at the bargaining table. Those who feel less powerful, either due to a negotiation’s structure or a lack of available alternatives, are less inclined to make the first offer.

Power and confidence usually result in better outcomes because they lead negotiators to make the first offer. And research has shown that the amount of the first offer affects the outcome - with more aggressive or extreme first offers leading to ‘better’ outcomes for those parties making the first offer. Initial offers better predict final settlement prices than subsequent concessionary behaviours do.


Freedom of movement / lack of dependence on others

A lack of dependence on others is a power that people love to have going into a negotiation – not just because it often allows ‘first offers’ to be made. A lack of dependence can arise from a number of scenarios including: the ability to walk away from the negotiation table because you don’t really need what the other side is selling (you have another source, or it’s a luxury not a ‘must have’); or because you are the ‘only show in town’ as far as your counterparty is concerned.

A weak party may also believe that they have ‘freedom of movement’ because they have the tacit or active support of a party who does have that power. For instance, a child may enlist the support of an adult relative in negotiations with her/her parents.

Role / Hierarchy Power

Another form of negotiation power derives from the personal status or position of those around the table. This can spring from organizational power, like when you are the ‘Big Cheese’, MD, CEO, President or Chairman. The fact that you can make the big decisions gives you power, and people will usually respect that. This power can also stem from the position that your organisation has in the relevant context. The Indemnity Insurer who has to sign-off a deal, or the Regulator whose approval is needed, will have this hierarchical or role power – even if their representative is not a high-status individual.

People acquiesce to ‘role power’ incredibly easily. This was amply demonstrated by famous experiment conducted at Stanford University in the 1970s. Student subjects were randomly assigned to play the role of either a guard or a prisoner in a simulated prison environment for two weeks. From the very beginning, the “guards” abused the “prisoners,” showing increasingly brutal, sadistic, and dehumanising behaviour. The researchers were so disturbed by what they witnessed that the study was called off after only six days.

People often mis-identify ‘role power’ in the room if they are not specifically looking for it. It’s not always the loudest people who have the most power. I once attended a mediation over a very low-level sum and one of the parties, a big insurer, brought their General Counsel to the meeting. She didn’t say much and sat at the back. But she was there, and her presence spoke volumes. It spoke not only about who was ultimately making the judgment call on any settlement offers, but also the importance of this seemingly trifling case to this large and powerful corporate. Ironically, the General Counsel’s attendance gave power to the other side in the negotiation.


Psychological Power

Finally, there is psychological power. A party can have psychological power in negotiation, even when objectively they don’t have much ‘real’ power. And psychological power should not be underestimated.


For hundreds of years leaders have followed the advice of the 16th-century philosopher Niccolo Machuavelli that: “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” Machiavelli openly advocated manipulation and occasional cruelty as the best means to gaining power. He gave his name to a common adjective, ‘Machiavellian’ meaning: “cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics”.


Machiavelli is still relevant today. Robert Greene’s 1998 bestselling management handbook ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ has sold over 1.4 million copies and has been translated into 24 languages. A few of Greene’s 48 laws include:

Law 3, Conceal Your Intentions. Law 6, Court Attention at All Costs. Law 12, Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm Your Victims. Law 15, Crush Your Enemy Totally. Law 18, Keep Others in Suspended Terror.


None of the above actually requires a novice power-seeker to have any real or tangible power in order to get started. As the veteran community activist, Saul Alinsky, once said: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.”

Being powerful and feeling powerful have essentially the same consequence for negotiations. Regardless of its source, power has consistent and predictable effects – both positive and negative – on negotiations.


There is an apocryphal story of IBM’s star salesman, who would always arrive early for his sales call, armed with a newspaper. He would then retire to the men’s room where he would beat a toilet-bowl with the rolled-up paper for a good 10 minutes. Once his endorphins were coursing around his veins he felt physically powerful and he was ready for business.

Similarly – it is said that Carl Icahn the legendary dealmaker sleeps until mid-afternoon and doesn’t start negotiations until around 6pm when his counterparties have usually already done a hard day’s work. Their energy levels are low, and Carl is ready to rock.


The psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner (University of California, Berkeley) has published some of the best studies exploring the ways that power influences behaviour. Keltner’s research shows how the powerful and the powerless live side by side, but in very different worlds. People who feel powerless are more likely to experience negative emotions, pay more attention to threats than to rewards, and are generally more passive in negotiation. People in positions of greater power (or those who feel more powerful), on the other hand, are more likely to experience positive moods, pay attention to social rewards, make quick decisions and act in uninhibited ways. And the overwhelming evidence seems to indicate that the powerful tend to like power, use it, justify having it, and try to keep it.

Feelings of powerlessness run just as deep – and can affect every aspect of a person’s actions. For instance, a 2003 study by Adam Galinsky, at Columbia Business School, found that people who feel more powerful are much more likely than their powerless peers to turn off a fan when left alone in a chilly room.

Similarly, changes in perceived power and the feelings of ‘losing power’ can be significant drivers in negotiation. Research has shown that people compare themselves with others who are like them in terms of group membership, attitudes, values, or social status (Major, 1994). When a party in negotiation feels a change in the reordering of relative group status, this can lead to a demand for better treatment to bring them back in line with their perceived peers. The phenomena of changed perceived power was a notable feature of the Civil Rights movement in the USA where several under-privileged groups were all vying for changes in their positions, relative to the ruling elites, and to each other.

The Balance of Power

Sustainable resolutions to conflict generally require a progression from unbalanced power relations between the parties towards relatively balanced relations. However, when two parties have equal power (or each feel equally powerful) in negotiation or conflict the result is often an awkward stand-off. This can lead to a so-called "Mexican standoff" where there is an additional disadvantage: no party has a safe way to withdraw from its position, thus making the standoff effectively permanent. The Cold War of the 1960’s and 70’s is a great example of this type of prolonged "Mexican standoff" stand-off, where the U.S.A. and Soviet Russia each guaranteed the destruction of the other through a nuclear conflagration.

When there is a permanent or semi-permanent standoff it’s possible that - rather than engaging each other directly – the parties may choose to wage war through proxies. Proxy wars have been common since the beginning of time. During the 1st World War the British partly organized and instigated the Arab Revolt to undermine the Ottoman Empire. And proxy wars came to characterise the Cold War, when the U.S.A. and Soviet Russia armed and supported smaller countries and insurgents who were their enemy’s enemy.

Ultimately, proxy wars, are dangerous and can be counterproductive. For example, the weapons that the U.S.A .supplied to the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s are now being used to kill the U.S. troops who invaded Afghanistan after 9/11.

Tips for Mediators

Some tips for mediators when considering power:

  • Power may seem like a dirty word. But it’s always a factor in conflict and should not be forgotten.

  • Analyse the resources of power in the conflict, your orientation to power, and the strategies and tactics for effectively implementing the available power.

  • Identify and develop the necessary skills for implementing your available power in the conflict.

  • Think about your own power and (particularly) your responsibility to use that power wisely, and for good.

  • Remember the dynamic complexity of processes of power and influence.

  • Become aware of your own tendencies to react in situations in which you have superior or inferior power to others.

  • Be aware of your privileges and ‘check’ your unconscious bias.


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