Dealing with Power Plays

All of us are sometimes the target of frustrating and unfair communicative strategies in our personal and organizational lives. These are often power games, taking the shape of patterns of communication and behavior into which we repeatedly, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes purposefully, find ourselves involved in. They are often not just isolated, random events. The communicators act systematically, and unfairly use others, or their own strength and power positions, for their own benefit. It is no coincidence that these acts use the terminology and vocabulary of sports or combat.

A number of toxic interpersonal communication practices were identified by Claude Steiner in his seminal work The Other Side of Power (1981), and later popularized by Joseph DeVito in his Interpersonal Communication Book (2008-2019). In our personal lives, we most often encounter the following unfair communication practices:

Nobody upstairs

The communication partner rejects “no” as a response, drops and/or downplays any reaction, and ridicules any reservations and concerns.

You owe me

As the name suggests, THIS concerns the repayment of an imaginary debt. One proven good deed (which no one cared much about, and no one really asked for in the first place) is constantly used as a reminder of a past expression of goodwill and help, which should be repaid indefinitely. The recipient is placed in the awkward role of an eternal debtor.


An ironic way of presenting oneself superiorly and exalting oneself in conversation above others. Typical sentences: “You don’t mean that,” “I’ve never heard such a stupid thing in my life,” “Where do you get such ideas?


Poetic language and soaring expressions are refreshing in day-to-day communication, so it may be difficult to decode them and recognize the message as an unfair, forceful maneuver. These appear in situations where the speaker negatively evaluates a third party who is not currently present, but such statements also point to ourselves, and our values, choices and attitudes, e.g. “Peter is probably not the sharpest pencil in the box.”

Thought stoppers 

Interrupting, jumping into another’s speech, completing another’s thoughts, then changing to another topic – these are the signs of a dominator who attracts attention with aggressive behavior. Shouting, screaming, or usage of vulgar vocabulary is commonplace, and often effective.

What is the best way to respond to such power plays? Adverse situations can be ignored or neutralized, but this is maybe easier said than done – and might even result in the normalization of the behavior. Additionally, it may also happen that this use of power is an isolated instance, not a trend.

A cooperative approach to power plays may be the most effective response. If I want to cooperate, I first express my feelings (“I am upset that you have posted my photo again on Instagram”). I will then describe the behavior that bothers me, stating facts rather than evaluating (“This is the third time this week I have asked you not to post my photos”). Finally, I will suggest cooperative behavior (“Please ask me first when you want to use my photos somewhere”).

There is no doubt that the easiest response to those who try to take advantage of you with power plays and other toxic communication is to ignore them – we all do it. But mustering the strength to engage with a cooperative response can often serve to stem the flow of power misuse for good.

(This is an edited and shortened version of an article 
published in My Psychology magazine, September, 2021)

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