“Widen the Lens” to Avoid Power Struggles

“Widen the Lens” to Avoid Power Struggles

Would you like a sure-fire way of getting beyond power struggles, regardless of the setting? No matter if the conflict is with your spouse, your coach, your training partner, even the demands of work pitted against your training schedule, or the doctor telling you to lay off an injury. Struggling with issues of power and control jeopardizes relationships, support and performance.

Have you noticed how there are times that you accept differences of opinion with no difficulty? Sure, we can have Mexican food tonight…I’m a little tired, but we can pick up the pace…I’ll be happy to miss my run to visit the in-laws (okay, maybe that’s stretching it). At other times, a difference in opinions or wishes leads to the vise-like grip of a power struggle.

In reality, power struggles are created not by differences of opinions, but how we view those differences. By considering a different perspective, we can unlock the power struggle and other options seem to appear as if by magic.

Psychologists have long known that it is the perceptions of events that are critical— the meaning that a person attributes to an event. Humans have a need to make sense of the world. We take the multitude of events and observations in our experience and organize it to tell a story that reflects our values and beliefs about the world, ourselves, and others.

Your explanation sets the stage

Amazing as it sounds, the number of elements or “units of focus” that a person includes in explaining a problem situation actually predetermines the explanation and the alternatives for solving the problem. While this may initially seem a bit confusing and theoretical, read on and you’ll discover its not that complex.

If you perceive a problem situation and your “story” is constructed around only one element or unit of focus, your explanation will be some form of deficiency. Its not strong enough, the other person doesn’t understand, they don’t have enough compassion, or whatever—something is always lacking. There are essentially three options for dealing with deficiencies: you either endure the problem, acquire more of whatever is lacking, or just replace the whole thing.

If your “story’ is constructed around two elements—regardless of the details of your situation— the explanation will be one of competition, control and conflict (i.e., the dreaded power struggle). There are only two options in a power struggle: win or lose. You may decide to throw the game, but deep inside you know its a loss.

Find a common “third focus”

Most people construct explanations of either one or two elements, often switching back and forth between the two. If, however, you can “widen the lens” to include three or more elements in your explanation of a problem situation, a whole new world of alternatives develops. With this broader perspective, the situation can be explained in terms of balance and evolution. The solutions then include options such as maintaining stability and continuing development. And the concept of power struggle becomes meaningless. What are examples of a third focus? The relationship, the future, your children, any goal or ideal that you share in common with the other person.


For example, I was approached last year by an athlete who wanted assistance preparing for her first competition at an international level. She was talented and had rapidly risen through the ranks of her respective sport, despite the demands of raising a two year old child within a still relatively new (five years) marriage. Her husband, a successful businessman, was athletic and supported her commitment to fitness; yet critical when he felt his efforts as “breadwinner” of the family were impeded by her sport commitments. Their conflicts usually centered around his having to change his work schedule to adjust to her training or competition.

Both parties had their “stories” explaining the situation. These fluctuated between explanations of either one or two elements. “He doesn’t understand how important this is to me…he just wants me to stay at home and take care of our son…he’s trying to control me.” “She’s not practical about the real world and what it costs to raise a family…Its just a power struggle on her part.” Each of these “stories” could be justified by observations and events; but none of them led to particularly desirable destinations.

The relationship as a “third focus”

I offered a different story that included a third focus. Just as their son was developing, so was their relationship (the third focus). They were a young couple adjusting to significant stresses where they both had their own wishes and expectations, and were developing a relationship that reflected the balance between each of their viewpoints, desires and dreams. The struggle was a necessary process to understand and achieve the balance.

I shared the same concepts that I have presented here— how her organization of information predetermined the explanations and options in her situation. It made sense to her, and she agreed that looking at how she could help the development of the relationship held many more options than those of the power struggle perspective.

The Relationship became a regular topic of conversation in both my work with the athlete and in her conversations with her husband. I want this, you want that, what do you think will be best for the development of The Relationship? By focusing on The Relationship, compromise and cooperation came naturally.
Don’t think yourself into a box

The moral of this story is this: Anytime you find yourself thinking “This is a power struggle, ” Stop! You are about to mentally lock yourself in a box. Start looking for a third focus to expand your options.

If your power struggle involves you and your training partner, the solution may be as simple as adding a third person to your workouts. If you are at odds with your coach or a physician that is insisting you heal an injury by not exercising for a period of time, the third focus may be your long term goal of racing at nationals.

You may debate which explanation or story in a given situation is the truth; but there is little doubt that the story with three or more elements offers more solutions and alternatives.


© Copywrite 1998, Dr. Charlie Brown.  All rights reserved.