The Third Side: What Do Equalizers Do?

What Do Equalizers Do?

Power equalizers can do one of two things (or both): They can increase the power of the low-power group, or they can decrease the power of the high-power group. Working on the first is most common, but opportunities to do the latter exist as well.

Increasing the Power of Low-Power Groups:

Strategies to increase the power of low-power groups include:

  • Education / Training or Capacity Building (both discussed in the essay on empowerment) - Saul Alinsky wrote, "I tell people to hell with charity, the only thing you'll get is what you're strong enough to get." This essay discusses what empowerment is, how it can be accomplished, who should do it, when, and what the outcomes might be.
  • Organization and Networking (also discussed in the empowerment essay)
  • Coalition Building - Coalition building is the making of alliances or coalitions between individuals, groups, or countries, who cooperatively work together to reach a common goal.
  • Developing a Strong "BATNA" - BATNA is a term invented by Roger Fisher and William Ury, and stands for "best alternative to a negotiated agreement." A negotiator should determine his or her BATNA before agreeing to any negotiated settlement.
  • Using Nonviolent Direct Action as a Form of Coercive Power
    • Nonviolent Direct Action - Nonviolent direct action is action, usually undertaken by a group of people, to persuade someone else to change their behavior. Examples include strikes, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations — social, economic, or political acts that are intended to persuade another to change their behavior by using threats or coersion, but without resorting to violent force.
    • Coercive Power - Huey Newton wrote, "Politics is war without bloodshed. War is politics with bloodshed." Though not all politics is coercive, it is certainly one way among others to force people to do what you want them to do, against their will. Though coercive power is often powerful, it usually has destructive effects when it is violent. Nonviolent coercion, however, is generally much less destructive, and is often constructive instead.
  • Developing Other Forms of Power
    • Exchange Power - Exchange power is the power of negotiating or working collaboratively to get something done together. Low-power groups often do not recognize that they have something to trade, but high-power groups often need something from them (at a minimum, their labor or their acceptance of the status quo) in order to retain their power.
    • Integrative Power - Integrative Power is the power that binds humans together. Kenneth Boulding calls it "love" or, "if that is too strong," he says, "call it respect." Though seldom studied or discussed, Boulding argues that it is the strongest form of power, especially because the other two forms (exchange and coercive power) cannot operate without the presence of integrative power. Nonviolent direct action draws heavily on integrative power to make it effective.
  • Getting to the Table - One of the main problems that low-power groups have is getting attention paid to them. "Getting to the negotiating table" — either literally or figuratively — is crucial. This can happen if these groups increase their power through methods listed above, or they can be brought to the table by a mediator, who assures that everyone has a voice and is treated fairly at the negotiating table.
  • Democratization - Democratization is another way of increasing the power of low-power groups. In addition to the essay on democratization, additional related readings include:
    • Democracy - In many ways, democracy is a system of conflict management in which the outcomes are unknown, but the fundamental rules of the game provide a safe arena in which to compete.
    • Power Sharing - If parties in intractable conflicts reach a stalemate but are unwilling to give up their power, they may choose a power sharing agreement, which would allow all major parties to retain at least some of their power. Power sharing is also sometimes implemented during transitions between authoritarian and democratic rule.
    • Elections and Election Monitoring - When a peace agreement depends upon a free and fair election to choose new leaders, election monitors are often invited in to ensure the integrity of those elections.
    • Civil Society Building - Civil society refers to the public's active engagement in government and public affairs. A society with a thriving civil society can deal with conflict in a creative, non-violent manner. A society with a weak civil society tends to stifle conflict until it explodes into violent revolution.

Strategies to Decrease the Power of the High-Power Group Include:

  • Denying Things That They Need - As can be seen in the essay on integrative power, even strong people or groups need the cooperation and assistance of low-power groups to maintain their position. If low-power groups refuse to grant such cooperation, then the power of the high-power group is diminished. This is the essence of "noncooperation," one of three primary methods of nonviolent direct action, as set out by theorist Gene Sharp.
  • Decreasing Their Legitimacy - Closely tied to the first approach, power is much harder to maintain if it is not seen as legitimate. If low-power groups can de-legitimize the high-power group or leader, then they will be able to gain considerably more ability to influence the actions of the high-power group or leader, or even cause him/her/them to lose their leadership position.
  • Implementing Sanctions - Sanctions are punishments that are used to try to influence other groups' or nation-states' behavior. Examples are embargoes and prohibitions from attending international events. Although they are difficult to implement and maintain, sanctions are still used fairly often, as a way of exerting both economic and social influence without using violence.

For More Information

Much of the material on this user guide is drawn from Thanks to William Ury and Joshua Weiss for giving us permission to republish their material here.