Power Imbalances in Mediation

Power Imbalances in Mediation exemplified by a teeter-scale with one gold ball weighing more than six stacked silver balls.

Today, I would like to discuss power imbalances in mediation and their impact on relationships. Power is when one person has influence over another person or making someone think, believe or behave in a way that person would not do so on a voluntary basis. In many cases, parties often overestimate their own power and underestimate the other party’s power and the balance may, and often does, shift in the mediation process.

Broadly, there are three uses of power in a conflict situation. The use of distributive power is when one or both parties are focussed on a win/lose orientation. They want to win at all costs and ensure that the other party loses as much as possible; it is an “either/or” power because the mentality is either you win or I win and there is no middle ground. integrative power designated power. The second, integrative power, is a “both/and” type of power and occurs when the orientation is for both parties to win and no party loses. The focus of the power is on collaboration and the parties give and take to ensure that they have a win/win orientation from beginning to end to the best of their abilities. Using designated power involves giving over power to the other party or to the relationship between the parties. This is a “no one person wins and no one person loses” orientation as the power is freely given.

Within these uses of power within any relationship, there are several manifestations of power that could come out in the mediation process. Over 50 years ago, two power researchers, French and Raven came up with a model for social power and that model is still used today in conflict situations.

Expert power is evident in all workplace conflict situation and, to a lesser degree, in family-based situations. The power resides in special skills and abilities that one person possesses that is either absent in the other person or is not as developed or extensive in the other party. For instance, in an office situation, Bill knows a great deal about computerized systems and took training in computer-mediated office dynamics when he is in community college so he found the transition to an automated record-keeping to be seamless. Bob is on the same project team as Bill and has been at their company for three times longer than Bill but is not very adept at anything related to technology. In this scenario, both parties have expert power as Bill is very competent at working on their computer system and Bob knows the protocols that have been in place for decades. In a conflict dispute, the expert power would have to be balanced to ensure that both Bill and Bob understand each’s set of special skills and abilities.

Coercive power occurs when one party makes the threat of punishment or undesirable consequences for the other party unless the first party gets what they want. For instance, Joe owes a lot of money to his mother-in-law, Paula, after she loaned him capital to get his furniture restorer business going but he is now divorcing her daughter and Paula wants the money back in short order since they did not have a written agreement. Joe is in a position to influence his children and his estranged wife depending on what he tells them about the arrangement so he could hurt Paula and her relationship with her daughter and grandchildren. Equally, Paula could influence her daughter and her grandchildren by “talking trash” about Joe unless he does what she asks. In this conflict dispute, the coercive power would have to be acknowledged and discussed openly so that both Joe and Paula understand the collateral damage that this coercive power could have and to point out that their shared interest of the family’s welfare stays at the centre of the mediation.

Reward power is when the one party offers to give something as a reward to the other party in exchange for a desirable outcome for the first party even though the second party may receive the same or a different desirable outcome. Bill could offer to populate Bob’s data base if Bob agrees to complete forms for Bill that he does not fully understand; Bob could agree to lessons on using a computer program to allow Bill to show his superior technological skills if Bill agrees to learn how to work with the other members of the team without showing off his technological skills and abilities. In the conflict dispute, the mediator would work with the two parties to showcase the talents of each and bring the two to an understanding that each can assist the other.

Network power can happen when one person has a strong connection to others (usually people of influence), knows them well or better than the other party, and can use that connection (real or imagined) to bring influence on dispute resolution. Joe has just started his business a few years ago and has not built up a large contact list of past, present, and future clients. Paula spent over 30 years as a successful business woman and has 100s of connections throughout the city, province, and country so she is in a position to use her network power for or against Joe. In the mediation setting, the mediator would facilitate a discussion between the two parties to get them to the point of understanding that Paula has real network power that could help Joe’s business grown which means that he could garner more contracts which would then mean he had more revenue, part of which could be used to pay back Paula.

Referent power is when one party possesses certain traits or characteristics that causes the other party to like or admire them. Bill is abrasive towards most of his project team members and comes across as arrogant and a know-it-all while Bob is popular with all of the team members and has acted as a mentor to many. Bill is cognizant of Bob’s popularity and of his being disliked by the other team members so he might want to work with Bob to learn what he can do to become better liked by his colleagues. This form of “human resource” is not always evident in a dispute but often does exist and it becomes the task of the mediator to draw out whether referent power is something to be discussed.

Resource power is when one party possesses some resource, like money or time, that the other party does not have or is not equally available to the other party. Paula has the resource of money that is not equally available to Joe. She can force the issue of repayment and could threaten to do so unless they can come to an understanding. Joe is cash-strapped so he could not fight her through any avenue involving money. Joe has the resource of time as he is allotted equal parenting time with the children according to the separation agreement between his estranged wife and him. He could ensure that all Paula’s access to time with her grandchildren must fall under his wife’s parenting time. In the conflict dispute, the mediator would work with the two parties to arrange for a sharing of both Paula’s resource power, money, and Joe’s resource power, time, to ensure that both parties come to an acceptable resolution.

Information power is evident when one party has unique knowledge that the other party does not have and may not know that the party possesses. Bill is very open about his abilities and skills with technology and about how easily he has migrated to the new computer system (i.e., expert power) but he does not know that Bob was the lead on the department’s conversion to the last upgrade and had been the leader numerous times since coming to the organization. Bob knows a lot about what is involved in the human aspects and the bureaucratic steps involved that has come through years of trial and error. The mediator would want to bring out that information in the mediation process by having each discuss their own backgrounds in trying to both improve the efficiency of their department and ensure that all members feel empowered and knowledgeable about organizational change.

Power imbalances and power struggles are inevitable in any relationship. The mediator’s task is to assess in the early stages of the mediation process how much power each party has, to try to balance the power where there is clear imbalance, and to help the parties to move away from a power-focussed to an interest-focussed approach to resolve the situation.

Further reading:

French, J R. P., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150-167). University of Michigan Press.