Power Plays in Communication

Long ago I worked at a cooperative restaurant called Casa Nueva. While I worked there I was taught about open communication and something called power plays. I have expanded upon the idea, and listed the power plays below.

Understanding power plays can be very helpful in our work and home lives. But more to the point of this site, understanding power plays can be useful in writing and understanding characters who need to display real problems. The first step in understanding power plays is knowing how people try to get what they want by manipulating conversations.

Keep in mind that power plays are not part of open and equal communication. They are attempts to control other people through different tactics. Some power plays seek to gain advantage over the group as a whole, while other power plays will be used to achieve a specific goal. Sometimes, both objectives can be sought all at once.

List of Power Plays:


The Martyr will be heard to sigh, and say “I’ll just do it.”

The thing about a martyr is, they often act with a moral correctness. When something has to change they take the burden onto themselves to just get it done. This makes martyrs a serious obstacle in problem solving. The martyr will remove group decision-making and participation by other people in the group, by carrying the burden for everyone.

The martyr can be a major cause of community breakdown as the other members of the group, or team, can then come to rely upon the martyr to do everything. Communication and group participation goes un-exercised and will begin to atrophy.

The martyr is a huge problem because:

A) other people are not held to an expatiation that they have a shared responsibility in solving problemd.

B) often a martyr will feel resentment about their carrying an unequal burden, and such resentment will show itself later through reminders to others about all the work the martyr does for everyone else. This leads to our next power play.

Playing to Guilt:
While to the martyr, Playing to Guilt is a secondary level of a power play, to others it is a first stop. As it sounds, playing to guilt requires stirring guilty feelings in others. Some people may rely on a personal disability, be it physical, mental, or social to sway people. Perhaps some tragedy in the offenders life will be used to control other people around them. Perhaps something simple can be used this way, such as just being a woman or a man, being young or old, or going through a breakup can all be used this way.

The offender might say, “I can’t do that.” They might ask, “Can you help me?” While this may arise slowly from a temporary need for assistance,  it can grow later into an expectation that tasks or duties should shift to someone else.

Playing to guilt is similar to a martyr, but is different in that those who play to guilt do not do tasks for others to wield their power play. The opposite is actually the case. They try to get others to do tasks for them.

There are different types of intimidation. The most obvious is physical threats, even if indirect. Throwing things around, slamming doors or venting frustration could be a sign of intimidation. If you ever hear one person say about another “You don’t want to get that person mad”, there is a strong likelihood that the person in question is using intimidation.

Intimidation can take the form of not just physical threats, but also social threats, emotional badgering and even sexual harassment. Identifying intimidation is the first step to overcoming its power against the attacked individual, and hopefully towards enlightening the offender. It can be tricky as a lot of intimidation is disguised as attempts at humor.

It is not so much an attempt to control a particular conversation. It usually occurs when a sense of great burden has been placed on the offender. This person is not communication their concerns in a reasonable way, and will in effect alter the group dynamic in preventing better dialog in the future.

Sabotage covers a wide range of acts, it is indirect and extremely destructive, as it does not outwardly state what is desired, nor does force the offender to assume responsibility for their actions.  It is one of the most dangerous power plays, as it leads itself to a physiological warp in thinking. The offender comes to believe that the other people should already know what the offender wants, and because they don’t, or didn’t give in to what is desired, the group will now have to pay consequences.

Clear and simple, people lie to get others to do things for them. Success in lying can build up over time and lead to lying as a lifestyle, wherein a completely false persona is created to stand in place of a lack-of-real accomplishments, and trials, faced by the liar.

The lie is a power play in that it seeks to obtain a goal without consideration for mutual give and take. Also, in the mind of the liar, they have placed themselves in a position of power over those that were lied to, causing the liar to fee superior while they place the one lied to as inferior.

Creating a Crisis:
Taking a normal situation and looking for the worst possible outcome has its roots in pragmatic thinking, which can be difficult to parse from actual attempts to control others. But taking a normal situation or a slight problem and turning it into an overly dramatic event can also indicate attempts at control that are far more subtle. There often isn’t one particular goal people want to accomplish by Creating a Crisis, but rather it is an attempt to gain a level of control over others within the social ranking.

People who often create a crisis are more concerned with having power over the group, and being able to manipulate the emotional state of others as part of establishing and proving this control. One might find its origins in middle school social circles, where drama is used to manipulate others or gain attention.

Acting Defensive:
The problem with defensiveness is two fold. First it allows for the denial of responsibility of the offender. Second it turns a normal conversation into an attack against the offender, so that those seeking a normal conversation about anything, will then be perceived as an attacker. This is mostly useful in avoiding consequences for actions, but overtime it can lead to the offender gaining what they desire as they are given a greater leeway due to their expected difficult responses. People will avoid confronting those acting defensive as they are so difficult to deal with – as are most of these problematic communications.

The person who triangulates is a power playah, in that they attempt to assert their influence over others by seeming to run interference on a problem before it becomes “too big to handle”. It appears they frame their concerns in language of hoping to avoid a crisis, and as such act justified to play people either against each other, or to bring them together in agreement before they meet, thereby allowing the offender to both set the agenda of the conversation, and to establish the outcome of that conversation, before it has a chance to take place.

With triangulation, the other parties involved were denied the ability to practice their own communication, and to come to an understanding on their own. Their relationship is diminished as a result and they will have less in common to work with in the future, thereby allowing the triangulation to work even better the next time.

The Three Argument Greeds:
I call the following the Three Argument Greeds, because they have slightly different tactics. They seek to achieve everything, or deny others anything, and refuse to yield. They are pulled apart because they are slightly different, and understanding them this way can be useful in dealing with them. They are: Righteousness, All-or-Nothing, and Rigidity.

Righteousness is ugly, plain and simple. It claims to act with a moral, social, religious, or other granted authority, whereby all other positions are rendered invalid. It closes down any opportunity for discussion about solutions, and turns those who disagree into unenlightened, non-chosen, or  un-special people who deserve nothing but rejection and mocking scorn. Nothing kills communication and solution-seeking quicker than righteousness. Look for it to be committed by bosses in the work place, leaders in communities, or by larger groups or teams.They often avoid speaking about solutions, and focus their language on problems sprinkled with anecdotes.

All Or Nothing:
This is a power play to accomplish a goal while giving nothing up. It is more straightforward than Righteousness and Rigidity (see below). An offender might say, “If I can’t have everything what I want then this whole deal is dead.” The offender is looking more for the sense of power of being able to hold up a solution. They desire a perception that they will be respected. This is a difficult power play with which to counter and negotiate.

Being unwilling to yield is a power play on its own. Similar to both all-or-nothing and righteousness above, the person using this tactic wants to get all of what they want without giving up anything. It is slightly different in that it is less direct.

Perhaps described by the offender as, “Unwilling to compromise on values”, it is a power play that seeks to get everything they want, end of discussion. Some people using this power play will push for everything, so that when they finally have to compromise negotiate, they will have given up less than the other side, because they started from a position of wanting more than they should reasonably be expected to have received. This is not solution oriented thinking. It is about having their goals met.

People conducting these three power plays may be swayed over time, but they can become resentful.


This can be a person physically removing themselves from a situation, or it could simply be stated as, “Fine, do it your way, but I want nothing more to do with it.” The person may cross their arms and look away.

Withdrawal is a power play similar to the martyr, but different, as well it borrows from all-or-nothing, in that if the person can’t have what they want they will refuse to participate. However, it acts different because the person acts as though they will not stand in the way of progress, they just refuse to be part of the solution.

While it might seem easy to go ahead and make decisions without the offender, the problem is that over time, withdrawal poisons any decisions that take place. It suggests that the process of decision making is somehow unfair, and as such all decisions, and all group actions, are therefore suspect. Withdrawal may simply be a temporary expression of frustration, and offender the person can be brought back into the conversation. If not the group should attempt reflection.

A serious question arises from Withdrawal in that, what if the decision making process is flawed? As such it must be addressed. The danger of discounting Withdrawal (or any power play) simply as a tactic for control opens the door to everyone claiming someone is, “Just making a power play”, which can become a power play itself.


Stating that someone’s concerns are not important or valid is a tactic to remove decision making obstacles. There are many ways to fulfill this tactic, such as belittling, mocking and discounting it by claiming it is just a power play. The groups strength is built first upon its ability to listen to all input and rationalize through all concerns. And then come to a decision.


For all of these power plays, a real discussion should take place, preferably after a chance to cool down. The power play should be pointed out to the offender. And if necessary, a discussion with the individual should occur to decide if that person is a good fit for the group.

Learn the different power plays, and be able to identify them as the specific problem that they are (and their true motivations). Don’t just shout out – “That’s a power play.” Learning to name them, and applying them to your  writing can lead to your characters having realistic responses, and realistic problems that they need to overcome.

Being able to include these in daily conversations in your home and work life, can help everyone better state what they are wanting, and can lead to decisions taking place faster, and with more buy-in from the group.