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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Power Struggle - A Losing Battle

In many couples, an ongoing power struggle is what brings them to therapy.  One wants to change the other and the other won’t change.  It’s a losing battle for both people.

A power struggle is just like a tug of war.  In a literal tug of war two teams take either end of a rope.  Each team tries to pull the other team across a line drawn between them.  

The winner is the team who pulls the other team across the line.  

In fact in a tug of war, everyone loses.  The “losers” usually fall on their faces as they are dragged across the line.  The “winners” also land on their rear ends as they fall backward, pulling the other team over.

When a couple in such a power struggle sits in my office, I am often reminded of the last scene in the old movie War Games with Matthew Broderick (it was his first movie).  The computer in charge of nuclear missiles is out of control.  

Although the computer is programmed to play a game called Global Thermonuclear War, in fact the computer has armed the actual missiles that will start a world war.  The computer’s inventor and the Broderick character try to teach the computer that war is a bad idea.  

They teach the computer to play Tic-Tac-Toe.  

If you know how to play Tic-Tac-Toe and are playing with someone who also knows the game, then every game will end up in a draw without a winner.  The computer plays simulated game after game of Tic-Tac-Toe in a frenzy and of course, never wins.  Then the computer moves to playing “thermonuclear war” working out each scenario that is in its program. Each scene ends with the words on the screen:  Winner: NONE.

Suddenly the computer stops everything and declares:  “The only winning move is not to play.

While that is true for nuclear war, it is also true that in a relationship power struggle, the only winning move is not to play.  In other words, if you don’t engage in a power struggle, your communication with your partner is much more likely to arrive at a resolution with which both of you can be comfortable.

The only hope for getting out of a power struggle is to find an area of agreement with the other person and build from there.  For example, if you and your partner are in conflict over your long commute to work in Atlanta, the power struggle can be avoided in this way:

You:  “Can we both agree that the long commute to work is boring and stressful?”
Other:  “Yes, I hate it.”
You:  “OK so we both agree that the commute leaves a lot to be desired.  Let’s brainstorm some ideas about how to lower the stress of the commute for us every day.”
Other:  “OK, but I don’t think there’s a good answer.”
You:  “Let’s just throw out ideas without judging them until we can’t think of any more.”
Other:  “Well, we could listen to books on tape.”
You:  “How about putting "move inside the perimeter" on the list.”
Other:  “How about finding someone to carpool with so we wouldn’t have to drive every day.”
You:  “I’d like to spend less time in the car - but MARTA doesn’t come out this far.”

When you run out of ideas, then each of you pick your favorite two ideas from the combined list.  See if the two of you can join on coming up with the strengths of each idea, no matter who contributed it.

If you get stuck or find a power struggle starting up again, return to the most recent area of agreement, “Well, I don’t want to struggle about that - I believe the last thing we agreed on is that we would discuss moving, carpooling, and looking for neighborhoods closer in but not all the way intown. Let's go back to that.”

Any time a power struggle starts, it is a losing battle.  The only way to win is not to play.

Note:  If you’d like to see the clip from the scene in the movie War Garmes, you can find it here.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

You Never Know Unless You Try

Being assertive takes a lot of practice.  Like any skill, the more you practice, the better you will be at using assertive skills and the more you practice, the more comfortable and natural it will become to use assertive communication.

I own a "jig" for building frames to use in the beehive.  A "jig" according to Merriam Webster is:

"Definition of JIG

a : any of several lively springy dances in triple rhythmb : music to which a jig may be danced
: trickgame —used chiefly in the phrase the jig is up
a : any of several fishing devices that are jerked up and down or drawn through the waterb : a device used to maintain mechanically the correct positional relationship between a piece of work and the tool or between parts of work during assemblyc : a device in which crushed ore is concentrated or coal is cleaned by agitating in water"

It's quite difficult to build frames for the beehive.  Each one takes ten nails and involves turning the frame upside down and sideways to accomplish the task.  Having a device that maintains the correct position of the frame for nailing it together is a real time saver.

In 2010 I ordered what's called a "frame nailing device" from Walter T. Kelley.  The device is a time saver because it holds the end bars of the frames in position so that the construction person can nail ten top bars onto the endbars at once.  They you turn the device over and nail the bottom bars onto the endbars.

If you have put the endbars in upside down, then when all the frames are completely nailed you can't remove them from the jig.

And wouldn't you know it, I've lost my set of directions and I don't want to construct ten frames and have to take them apart because I put the endbars in upside down.

So Saturday, in my best assertive fashion, I called the Walter T. Kelley company and asked if they could mail or email me a set of the directions.  Since in good assertive communication, one must provide the relative facts, this is what I said:

"My name is Linda Tillman and I ordered a frame nailing device from you in February 2010.  I can't find my record of the purchase, but I'm sure you have it in your computer if you would look it up.  I have lost my direction page and I remember that I did the first ten frames upside down and had to take them apart because I couldn't get them out of the frame nailing device.  I'd like to get another copy of the directions for using this device.  Could you mail them or email them to me?"

The woman I spoke to said that they could not do that on the weekend but that she would leave a note for someone to take care of it on Monday.

I worried about this and decided that I needed to continue to exercise my assertiveness.  I haven't heard from Walter T. Kelley company so far this week and it's Wednesday.  Anything mailed or emailed on Monday from Kentucky (where they are located) to Atlanta should already be here.

I picked up the phone this afternoon and called again.  I had an identical conversation with another woman.  "Of course we can send them to you," she said.  "I can mail them easier than I can email them.  Can I confirm your address?"  I gave it to her.

We had a nice connection with each other and shared a few laughs about building frames upside down and having them stuck in the device.  Because I was assertive and because we had a nice conversation with each other, I am quite confident that my directions will arrive shortly.

Little moments like this are simply small practices in being assertive.  Noticing them is important because I know both that my persistence and my assertiveness are going to prevent my making a nailing error when I build 100 or so frames next weekend.

Every moment or opportunity to practice being assertive adds more confidence to your willingness to employ assertiveness the next you need it.