Skinned Alive? Power and Control in Conflict

One of my mediation clients once said, “I know what win-win is.  That’s what you tell the other person to make them feel better after you have skinned them alive.”  People in conflict often fear the other party will use power and control to take advantage of the situation and coerce them into an unfair agreement.  To protect themselves, they join in the power struggle and use the means under their control to influence the outcome.  When decisions are the result of coercion, they are more likely to boomerang and leave each party feeling “skinned alive.”  We see this particularly when we observe disputes between nations but also in the ineffective use of power when parents use their coercive power to get their children to do what the parent thinks is best.  Although the conflict may have ended, at least temporarily, the outcome may not be optimal and the relationship may have been damaged, leading to future conflicts.

We created the Understanding model with a view that the power of understanding is an underutilized power that is a true alternative to the power of coercion.  The people who have created the problem and will have to live with the results of the solution have the wisdom within them to know what decisions make sense for their lives.  If parties can minimize coercion to make the best decision together, the agreement is more likely to be one that they will be committed to.

So what is our role as professionals?  We help them hang in there to not surrender to the other or overpower the other so that we can preserve for them the ability to make decisions together.  We help them navigate the minefields of the dangers of other professionals who might want to take over the decisions for them.  We seek to empower our clients to make decisions together with our support.

So what could go wrong?  Us.  Our relationship to power and control. Do we overtly or secretly try to manipulate the parties to reach the result that we think is best for them while giving lip service to the decisions being up to them, wink, wink, nod, nod?  And how do we cope with the challenges that arise when one party wants to control the other?  Do we step in to shut that down to protect the one from being overpowered by the other?  Do we respond to aggression by the parties or the other professionals we are working with, with our own aggression and find ourselves polarized from others, or worse, successful in our attempts to dominate the process?

Many conflict professionals pretend that they don’t use power and control as part of their process.  They see power and control as dirty words.  Yet upon reflection, we know that being unconscious of the way in which we try to influence others is far more dangerous than admitting that it’s appropriate for us to be exerting power as a responsible professional.

In the next couple of months in our newsletter, blogs and advanced training, we will be exploring the question of our relationship to power and control and how that impacts our work with the people we are trying to help.