Examine yourself with this list of power plays

I find Power Plays are so harmful to dialogue that I am posting this List of Power Plays. Long ago I worked at a cooperative restaurant called Casa Nueva. While I worked there I was taught about open communication. We also learned about communication that is not open, something called Power Plays. I’ve created a list of power plays taught to me, and added a few extra ones as well. Learning about power plays is great for thinking about how we try to convey what we desire. Hopefully, when people learn to be more direct they will find much of the conflict in their lives will dissipate.

Power plays are not part of open and equal communication. Power plays are attempts to control other people through different tactics. Understanding power plays can be very helpful in our work and home lives. The first step in understanding power plays is knowing how people try to get what they want by manipulating conversations.

Acting Defensive:

I start my List of Power Plays with Defensiveness. Defensiveness is denial of something, usually out of fear of judgement, or fear of accusation. I put this power play first because we each must address our own inclinations toward being defensive, to be prepared to recognize within ourselves the list of power plays that follow.

We each must learn to accept that sometimes we demonstrate behaviors that we have learned from other people. Behaviors that are harmful to us. If we accept that sometimes we commit power plays, then we can begin to improve our communication skills. Our lives will improve as well. 

The problem with defensiveness is two fold. First, it allows for the denial of responsibility of the offender. Second, power plays turn a normal conversation into an attack. Those seeking normal conversation about anything, will then be perceived as being an attacker.

Defensiveness used to avoid consequences for actions. Overtime it can lead to the offender gaining greater leeway, due to expected difficult and defensive responses. People will avoid confronting those acting defensive. The offenders end up growing more isolated from the group. They lose chances to build the kinds of strong connections established through open communicating. 


There are different types of intimidation. The most obvious is physical threats, even if indirect. Throwing things around, slamming doors or venting frustration are signs of intimidation. If you hear someone say “You don’t want to get that person mad”, there’s probably intimidation happening.

Intimidation can be non-physical threats. They might be social threats, emotional badgering and even sexual harassment. Identifying intimidation is the first step to overcoming its power, and hopefully towards enlightening the offender. It can be tricky as a lot of intimidation is disguised as attempts at humor. One might hear, “it’s just a joke.”


Sabotage covers a wide range of destructive acts. It is indirect and extremely as it does not outwardly state what is desired. It is one of the most dangerous power plays, as it leads itself to a psychologically warped thinking. The offender comes to believe that other people should already know what the offender wants. If 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. A completely false persona can be created.

The lie is a power play as it seeks to obtain a goal without consideration for mutual give and take. The liar has placed themselves in a position of power over those that were lied to. This causes the liar to feel superior while they place the one lied to as inferior.

Creating a Crisis:

Creating a Crisis is when a normal situation or disappointment is treated as the worst possible outcome. The problem exists because it seems to have pragmatic thinking at it’s core. This can make it difficult to parse from actual attempts to control others. There often isn’t one particular goal people want to accomplish by Creating a Crisis. Rather it is an attempt to gain a level of control over what is happening.

People who often create a crisis are more concerned with having power over the group in a particular situation. They are able to manipulate the emotional state of others as part of establishing and proving control.


The person who triangulates is a true power playah. They attempt to assert influence over others by running interference on a problem before they becomes “too big to handle”. A person committing triangulation might frame their concerns in language of hoping to avoid a crisis. They act justified in playing people either against each other, or to bring them together in agreement before they meet. This allows 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 are denied the ability to practice their own communication, and to come to an understanding on their own. The possible strength of their relationship is diminished as a result. They will have less in common to connect over in the future.

The Two Rigids:

The next two, on this list of power plays, are similar but are slightly different. 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. 


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 sound-bites 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.


In many religions a martyr is someone who gives their life, or energy for a greater good. In terms of power plays the martyr gives their energy to use it as a weapon of control. They take on a difficult task, and then remind people about what they did. 

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. That’s fine, until the martyr reminds people about their goodness as a way to manipulate some interaction.

The martyr can be a major cause of community breakdown when other members of the group come to rely upon the martyr to do everything. Group participation goes un-exercised and begins 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 problems.

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 tired, or being young or old, or going through a breakup.

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.


Withdrawal can be a person physically removing themselves from a situation. 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 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 someone who has withdrawn. However, over time it 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 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.

How To Use This List Of Power Plays

This list of power plays can be helpful by first studying them, and thinking about them. After a conflict and cooling off period, the parties involved can talk with open communication using “I sentences”.  Point out how the behaviors were perceived and how they affected the communication. 

Hopefully, simply pointing out the power play will be enough to change behavior. There may need to be a conversation with the individual to decide if that person is a good fit for the group.

Going Forward

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” – doing so would be a power play itself.  Learning to name power plays, and applying them in constructive ways will be a great asset for any communicator. 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.

This post isn’t about any songs. I have written a song about Casa Nueva