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  • Writer's pictureFrank Garten

How to manage and regain the power balance in difficult conversations?

When two people have a conversation, it is fascinating to analyze the conversation through the lens of the so-called ‘power balance’. This concept – known from negotiation theory – indicates how the power is divided between the partners in a conversation.

What can give us power? We usually make a distinction between personal power and positional power. The latter is the power we derive from our formal position, from the amount of information we have, from the people that we know, and from the size of the company we represent. You have all heard these arguments:

  • “He has 15 years of experience more than I do and is vice president, so I cannot speak up to him.”

  • Didn’t you know the market is changing rapidly and that your share with us is dropping with 8% already last year. Your competition comes with great new product introductions. You’d better be a bit careful.”

  • “I am a good friend of the CFO, he told me last week that your department is not doing too well recently.”

  • “Do you realize we are a 4-billion-dollar company? Our standard terms and conditions are guiding here.”

Next to these positional sources of power, we derive most power from our personality: personal power. This is the part that has to do with charisma, influencing skills and emotional intelligence.

We often overestimate somebody else’s positional power and underestimate our own personal power. Without generalizing, I have often seen it with young recruitment professionals, who are definitely very good at what they do, but assign most power to the senior hiring managers they work with (“He doesn’t listen to me, and often doesn’t even respond to my messages.”). They consistently underestimate the amount of power they have themselves if they would speak up as a professional and stand their ground.

The interesting aspect of power balance is that you have to make a clear distinction between real power and perceived power. We often perceive the other person as very powerful, while in fact we underestimate how much personal (and even positional) power we can exert ourselves. The perceived power results from voices in our head: the things we tell ourselves about the other person, or about our own capabilities.

It is important to detach yourself from a difficult conversation occasionally, and ask yourself: “Is the difference in power balance that I perceive here real (Is it fact that the other has more power?), or is this just my perception (Do I find it hard to accept I have a lot of power as well?)”

Depending on the source of the power imbalance you will benefit from a different response. In case of a real difference in power balance, it is important to stick to facts and figures. The power imbalance will best be handled by a cool-headed and factual approach, where you use data and tactics to swing the power balance more in your favor.

In the case of a perceived difference in power (the majority of cases, certainly between recruitment professionals and hiring managers) you will have to deal with the emotional aspects of the situation. When you perceive to have less power, your self-confidence can get a hit, and it’s likely you start responding defensive to whatever is happening around you. And when we use defensive mechanisms, we are not at our best: we cannot think straight and have difficulty controlling our emotions. Your strongest weapon in the battle against an unbalanced division of power is to get at ease with your own emotions and influence the conversation by elements of personal power.

This aspect will be a central theme in the workshop “Influencing Hiring Managers” that Wearebridge gives on March 18th. Next to lots of influencing techniques and communications practice, we will assess power balance in a lot of situations, and give you tips to instantly influence the power balance in your advantage next time you are in a difficult conversation. We will give you direct feedback about how you are perceived by others, as this will help you understand perceived power balance issues that you may face in your daily work. So expect – next to no-nonsense techniques and tips – to also be challenged emotionally, such that your defenses get stronger and you more confidently return back to work the next day

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