The Third Side: What is Power?

What is Power?

Power is broadly defined as "the capacity to bring about change." It takes many forms, comes from many places, and is measured in many ways. Understanding all the varieties of power is essential if one is to understand who has it, who doesn't, and how those who don't have it can get it.

Essays that are useful to read to better understand this complex concept include:

  • Understanding Power - If power were one-dimensional, we could easily agree on who has more and who has less. However, we are often surprised when a seemingly less powerful party holds a more powerful party at bay. This introductory essay discusses both potential and actual power, and the sources and forms of each.
  • 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 sometimes powerful, it usually has a lot of destructive effects, which are explained in this essay, along with the benefits of coercion.
  • Aggression - This essay explores the debate over aggression, and whether it is an instinct, a reaction, or a learned response.
  • Revenge and the Backlash Effect - Most people hate to be forced to do things against their will. Using threats often produces such a large backlash, that more problems are created than are solved.
  • Sanctions - Sanctions are punishments that are used to try to influence other nation-states' behavior. Examples are embargoes and prohibitions from attending international events. The benefits and problems with sanctions are described in this essay.
  • Exchange Power - In simple terms, exchange power means that, "I do something for you, in order to get you to do something for me." However, this simple concept has formed the basis for very complex human interactions, including, for example, our economic system.
  • Incentives - Incentives involve rewarding another party for changing their behavior. Although incentives have been frequently associated with weakness or indecisiveness, they can be an effective approach for changing behavior and resolving conflicts.
  • 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.
  • Persuasion - Persuasion is the ability to change people's attitudes, largely through the skillful use of language. Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a classic example of persuasion.

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.