Don’t give up your power when dealing with conflict

Apr 01, 2024 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

A woman wearing a green backpack hikes through snow to reach a mountain summit in the backgroundOver my many years of doing conflict resolution and collaboration work, it has become very clear to me that we have a serious problem with power.

People involved in conflict often describe themselves as powerless. Or they ask questions such as “How do you negotiate with people who have more power than you?” or “What do I do if they have all of the power?” Or they wonder how parties can collaborate when there are serious power imbalances.

These concerns reflect a very real and important concern: Parties involved in conflict and collaboration often are not on an even playing field. This can make it hard for parties to negotiate effectively and create mutually beneficial outcomes.

However, these concerns about power also often reflect—and are reflective of—what I consider to be a major misunderstanding of power. And, as I will explore below, this misunderstanding is at the heart of our problem with power—and it gets in the way of parties using the power they have to help produce productive outcomes when dealing with conflict.

The problem with power

When people bemoan the fact that they don’t have any power or ask how to navigate conflict and collaboration when there are major power imbalances, I have taken to asking them “What is power?” 

Interestingly, most people struggle to answer that question, and I think that is the root of the problem with power: Many of us are rightfully deeply concerned about power; however, we have not stopped to really consider and clarify what it is that we are really concerned about.  

As a result, people often talk about power as this vague thing that you either do or do not have. We see ourselves and others as “powerful” or “powerless,” without being entirely clear about what power is in the first place.

This overly simplistic understanding of power gets in the way of us seeing the power we do have. And, as a result, it gets in the way of us using that power to balance the playing field when trying to find collaborative solutions.

Therefore, before we can discuss how to deal with power dynamics in situations of conflict (or in life in general), we need to first get clear on what power is—and is not.

What is power?

As with all words, the definition of power depends on what source you look to. Some dictionaries define power as “the ability to do something or act in a particular way” or “ability to act or produce an effect.” Others define it as “possession of control, authority, or influence over others” or “ability to control people and events.”  

Academic definitions of power abound but often align with these latter definitions, focusing on what some people refer to as “power over”—i.e., as one sociology dictionary puts it, “the ability of an individual, group, or institution to influence or exercise control over other people and achieve their goals despite possible opposition or resistance.” 

Defining power as “power over” assumes that in order to exert agency in our lives, we have to control or influence others. As such, it is a very zero-sum (i.e., win-lose) way of seeing power, and one that totally ignores what scholars refer to as “power with” (or what Brené Brown calls “power with/to/within”). 

The idea of power with (and power to and power within) is that we can exercise agency and influence our own lives without controlling others. In fact, as I have seen consistently in my work, often the best way for us to get good outcomes for ourselves is not through trying to dominate or push around others, but rather through stepping into our own power to take care of our needs and to work with others to create mutually beneficial outcomes.

This is why I find it most helpful to understand power as simply our ability to influence our situation so as to take care of our needs and create positive outcomes. 

When we understand power this way, we often realize we have much more power than we thought we did. 

Power and conflict

So what does all of this have to do with conflict?

Before I answer that, let me first remind us what conflict is and isn’t: Conflict is simply the intersection of different perspectives, ideas, wants, or needs that are in tension with each other and not easily reconciled. In and of itself, conflict isn’t a problem; to the contrary, conflict can be quite productive and generative, if skillfully handled.

The problem with conflict arises when we fear that it will result in loss of something important to us. In other words, it arises when we fear we do not have the power to influence our situation and secure a good outcome for ourselves.

As I have explored in prior blogs, this fear of loss tends to lead us to dysregulate; we feel threatened, so we go into fight, flight, freeze, or appease mode. And when we do this, we often default to behaviors that, paradoxically, tend to result in poor outcomes for ourselves and others. This is what I have called the downward spiral of destructive conflict

To interrupt this downward spiral, I find it helpful to remind myself that my power lies in my ability to act in ways that are likely to meet my needs and create positive results for myself and others. This helps me avoid defaulting to a desire to control others and situations—which 1) is a result of dysregulation and 2) tends to lead to unproductive results—and to instead put my energy into making choices that will lead to productive outcomes. 

To help me do that, I have made a habit of asking myself the following three related questions when dealing with conflict:  

  1. What would be a truly productive outcome in this situation?
  2. What really matters to me in this situation (i.e., what are my interests)?
  3. What can I do—on my own or with others—to meet my key interests? In other words, where do I have power?

I find that asking these three questions makes it easier for me to:

  • Focus on my interests (i.e., my fundamental needs and concerns) and keep them front and center;
  • Focus on achieving a truly good outcome that addresses my interests, rather than focusing on controlling, winning, or just trying not to lose; 
  • Embrace the fact that conflict is not zero-sum, and that it is possible for me to meet my needs in a way that doesn’t take away from meeting other people’s needs;
  • Think creatively and clearly about how I can meet my interests and achieve a good outcome—with or without the participation of others; and
  • Ultimately make choices that will actually address my interests and lead to good outcomes 

When we approach conflict in this way, it is much easier to behave in conflict competent ways—i.e., to stay calm, approach conflict with compassion, curiosity, creativity, courage, and commitment, and communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, we often approach conflict in positional, zero-sum ways, seeking to exert control over the situation and others, rather than focusing on what really matters and what we can do—what is within our power—to help achieve those positive outcomes. As I’ve discussed in prior blogs, this is one key place people often go wrong in dealing with conflict—and in doing so, we give up our power.

Don’t give up your power!

As anyone who has taken training with me probably knows, I love the following quote, which is attributed to Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

I love this quote because it speaks to where our real power lies: in our ability to choose how we respond to any situation or stimulus. We cannot choose how others respond or act, but we can choose how we respond and act. We cannot control outcomes, but we can control ourselves. 

In line with this, instead of seeing conflict situations as being defined by power imbalances, I suggest we instead focus on the power we and others have, and that we use that power to even the playing field and help people work together to co-create mutual gains and effective solutions. 

As you encounter conflict situations, I encourage you to embrace your power to influence situations in a way that will lead to good outcomes. You can start by committing to taking care of your needs, choosing how you respond, and trying to work with others to create mutually beneficial outcomes.

Danya Rumore, a white woman with brown hair wearing a teal blouse and cardiganDanya Rumore, Ph.D., is the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a research professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a clinical associate professor in the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the founder and a co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.


About the EDR blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) program, the EDR blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at