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Power Dynamics in Discourse

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| February 8, 2022

This blog will help you define power dynamics and learn how to navigate them, giving you the chance to improve your discourse.

Power dynamics are present in every situation and can have a profound impact on all types of relationships. This is why it’s crucial to understand the different types of power dynamics and how to navigate them so you can have more effective discourse.

If you’ve ever struggled to communicate consistently with a boss, relative or friend, there’s a reason why. Sometimes, there’s a difference in personality or life experience, but oftentimes, there’s a power dynamic involved. Power dynamics can be at the root of miscommunication among many interpersonal relationships.

This isn’t to say that power dynamics are inherently negative. In fact, they shouldn’t hold any value judgments due to their ubiquitous nature. Meaning, power is present everywhere; how it is used makes the difference between positive and negative outcomes.

Before diving into the effects, this blog will define power dynamics and provide information on seven different types to help you understand your own relationships.

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Power Dynamics Definition

Power dynamics are essentially how power exists in a situation. They can be exhibited by the amount of control a person has based on their type of perceived or existing power. While power itself is neither positive nor negative, the dynamics can help or hinder a situation.

There are seven different types of power dynamics that have been studied and developed, and they cover the range of power a person may hold in any given setting. 

  1. Coercive: The dynamic that functions based on punishment. An example being that an employee will be written up for tardiness.
  2. Reward: The opposite of coercive, reward is exactly as it sounds: The person in power has the ability to reward you for a behavior, like receiving a sales commission.
  3. Legitimate: A power dynamic commonly known as formal or titular power, where a person has control based on the nature of their position, like your parent or boss.
  4. Connection: This dynamic is where power is acquired through a person having an important network of people, such as an agent helping aspiring actors.
  5. Referent: The dynamic that holds power based on personal influence and how much a person is liked. For example, a popular person has referent power in their social circle.
  6. Informational: This power dynamic happens when a person has knowledge that puts them in a position over others. This could be the family member who everyone trusts with their secrets.
  7. Expertise: Similar to informational, this power dynamic happens when a person has the ability to perform a task or skill that is unique or valuable. A person in a group who can speak another language has expertise power, especially when traveling.

All seven types of dynamics show up in your interpersonal relationships with friends, partners, colleagues, families, leaders, employers and everyone in between. With the presence of these dynamics comes the role they play and how they affect these relationships.

Power dynamics are a substantial part of how relationships exist in both the personal and professional realm. They have the ability to affect self-worth, agency and communication. Appropriately used power dynamics can protect individuals and help them grow, but they can also be abused and create a harmful or an oppressive environment.

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Navigating Power Dynamics

It may seem like a monumental task to navigate those situations where the power dynamic is nearly tangible, but it gets easier with practice. The key to navigating power dynamics from either side is to focus on a few aspects of communication:

  • Leave your assumptions behind. One of the ways communication can be disrupted by power dynamics is that power can cause assumptions, and it’s no surprise that assumptions are a huge detriment to successful discourse.
  • Encourage conversation. Power dynamics can feel like a barrier to productive conversation, but they should in no way be a hindrance. While the presence of power in a situation can be scary, one of the best ways to combat those feelings is to communicate openly and respectfully.
  • If you have the power in the situation, remember your empathy. You don’t hold the power in every situation, so reflect on what it feels like when your counterpart treats you as inferior. Instead of modeling that behavior, consider how you can help the person in front of you.
  • When you hold less power in the conversation, remember that your personal worth comes from much more than who you know, what position you’re in and how much knowledge you possess. These situations change, and you learn and grow.

Solidify your understanding of power dynamics. When you can grasp the dynamic in your situations, you are able to understand where you stand and take away some of the pressure that lingers with power dynamics.

A Final Note on Power Dynamics

Whether you are conversing with your uncle about politics or negotiating your salary with your employers, understanding power dynamics can help you navigate these situations with confidence and empathy. This can be a critical move for having more productive discourse.

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