Power, Situations, and Actions

The word “power” derives from the Anglo-French “pouair” and the earlier Old French verb “podir”, to be able.  In social relations, the ability or power to achieve your own goals depends on the influence you bring to bear and the opposing forces you encounter.  Put another way, Power equals Assistance minus Resistance.  The assistance might come from your own skills and resources or from those of your allies.  The resistance might come from competing goals, your own or those of others, or from the inherent difficulty of the task.

The chart on the following page shows three relational categories vertically —friendly, neutral, and hostile.  Each is divided into three action zones that represent levels of personal power.  A “Situation” means interaction among people pursuing their goals at a time and place or in a particular context.  The movements, objects, symbols, and tactics that they use will be a reflection of how much assistance or resistance they expect.  Over time, many different situations will result in general impressions that each person has of the others, thus coloring future interactions.

Friendly Situations: Here cooperation and sharing are the rule.  There is also an expectation that someone with substantial resources would give support without immediately benefiting themselves because of the importance of the bond.

Neutral Situations: In civil society, where people are constantly engaged in transactions with the providers of goods and services, fair exchange is expected.  Negotiating and bargaining are normal in this context.  A customer is free to accept an offer or to walk away.  There may be friendly competition here, but trading is the main focus.  Another type of neutral relationship involves an authority figure directing others who accept this direction willingly.  Doctors, teachers, or owners are obeyed out of the respect that others grant to them.

Hostile Situations: In this category, compliance is imposed, by threat or by force on those who do not freely accept an authority or goal. Fear, anger, and suspicion prevail.  Mutual resistance and the struggle to dominate often lead to failures and losses for all. 

Anger is a vital emotion signaling that a condition or behavior is unacceptable.  In the context of an otherwise friendly relationship, its expression will be counterbalanced by apologies or by moves toward understanding and empathy.  Without these signs or a deeper sense of trust, anger will confirm that the relationship is a hostile one—one that is likely to lead to either victory or defeat.  At the end of a test of strength, the winner may gain the prize but lack true security because the loser’s compliance is the result of coercion and cannot be trusted.

The map that follows represents the field on which we spend our lives, moving from one region to another.  Change is inevitable.  Those involved in hostilities may eventually craft a fair agreement.  Conversely, friendly relations may deteriorate because something vital has been neglected. This Situation and Action chart is deliberately fuzzy. Real life situations are extraordinarily complex. Individual actions and reactions cannot be precise points on this field.  Imagine them as small, moving, circles of influence.

The chart, with its nine categories and associated actions, also suggests the types of influence or tactics that might be used in specific circumstances.  Several are often brought into play at the same time.  (1)

  • Rewarding—Influencing by giving or promising support.
  • Punishing—Relying on force, intimidation, or threat.
  • Identifying or Associating with people, places, things, or events.
  • Appealing to customs, moral codes, laws or role prescriptions.
  • Appealing to logic or reason.
  • Claiming Expert Status


Friendly Situation Expected

  • High Power Actions—Cooperating, Rewarding, Inventing, Sharing, Giving, Supporting
  • Medium Power Actions—Including, Accepting, Understanding, Empathizing, Involving
  • Low Power Actions—Consenting, Appreciating, Requesting, Receiving, Trusting, Revealing

 Neutral Situation Expected                     

  • High Power Actions—Directing, Instructing, Teaching, Correcting, Assigning, Inspiring
  • Medium Power Actions—Bargaining, Negotiating, Trading, Exchanging, Compromising
  • Low Power Actions—Complying, Following, Conforming, Admiring

 Hostile Situation Expected

  • High Power Actions—Dominating, Commanding, Demanding, Resisting, Forcing
  • Medium Power Actions—Rejecting, Disputing, Excluding, Blocking, Ignoring
  • Low Power Actions—Surrendering, Yielding, Obeying, Evading, Hiding, Pleading      


The Power, Situations, and Actions chart is broadly consistent with two forerunners.  The first was a circular representation of interpersonal behaviors put forth by Timothy Leary at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1950’s.  It was created after an extensive review of the communication among some sixty individuals in different group settings.  It allocated behaviors in terms of a vertical axis (dominance-submission) and a horizontal axis (hostility-friendliness).  Sixteen behavioral groupings radiated around this “circumplex.” (2)



Another source for the Power, Situations, and Actions chart began as the “Managerial Grid” developed by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton of the University of Texas in the early 1960’s.  Two dimensions—personal relationship importance and productivity importance, rated on a zero to 10 scale, yielded a chart that could be divided into five managerial approaches.  By 1969, Jay Hall had adapted this grid to illustrate five basic styles of conflict management. () In 1974, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann published their conflict mode instrument, the TKI, which has been widely used as a training tool. () In the Thomas-Kilmann grid, degrees of assertiveness and cooperativeness define five different ways of handling conflict:

  • Competing (Assertive and Uncooperative),
  • Avoiding (Unassertive and Uncooperative),
  • Accommodating (Unassertive and Cooperative),
  • Compromising (Moderately Assertive and Cooperative), and
  • Collaborating (Highly Assertive and Cooperative)

David W. Johnson of the University of Minnesota brought these styles to life by giving them animal characteristics.  When the vertical dimension registers goal importance and the horizontal dimension signifies relationship concerns, high interest in goals and low concern about relationships leads to an aggressive, competitive style represented by the Shark (upper left-hand corner of this version).  In the lower left corner, a Turtle symbolizes conflict avoidance and withdrawal.  Accommodating and smoothing techniques are employed by the Teddy Bear, who believes maintaining a relationship is more important than getting what he wants.  A Fox occupies the central region.  He is willing to compromise and bargain, getting some of what he wants while giving up other things.  Owls value both goals and relationships highly.  They cooperate by integrating and problem-solving.  While Johnson is clear that each style may be appropriate under specific circumstances, he does believe that a collaborative orientation, though time-consuming, is best for groups seeking equality and strong bonds. (3)


  • French, John R.P. and Raven, Bertram. “Bases of Social Power” in Studies in Social Power. Cartwright, Dorwin, Ed . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1959. I added “appeal to logic and reason” to French and Raven’s original five because of their traditional role in law, mathematics, and science.
  • Leary, Timothy. Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality. New York: Ronald Press,    1957, pp. 62-67. Modifications of Leary’s circumplex are being used by researchers  today. For clarity and comparative purposes, my reproduction of his chart deletes the outer rim of extreme behavioral expressions.
  • Johnson, David W. Reaching Out. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990, pp. 224-227. Dr. Johnson’s animal chart has been widely circulated, formally and informally. I especially recommend Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, an upper-division text exploring group processes that he co-authored with his brother, Frank, published by Allyn and Bacon and now in its tenth edition.