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Control: Power v. Choice

It’s been a great spring here at Negotiation Ninja and now Memorial Day is upon us.  Time with family and friends is always the perfect time to enhance your negotiation skills by practicing on people who will probably love you anyway.

Here is a useful little tidbit to play with this holiday weekend… This information is powerful and will help you navigate the many power and control issues that inevitably arise when families get together…

The Study

This relatively simple study has articulated what many seasoned negotiators know instinctively.  Now you can put this knowledge to work for you in life and in negotiation.

Researchers have discovered that two types of control – power and personal choice – are interchangeable [i].

The researchers found that if someone is satisfied with the amount of control they have over their own circumstances, and have choices and options, they do not seek to exert power over other people.  And why would they?


People with an array of personal choices and the ability to control their own destiny are probably too happy to care about pushing other people around.  They have little reason to exert power and control over other people.


Conversely, someone who is deprived of choice, options, and control over their own circumstances will attempt to exert power over others.  This, of course, makes perfect sense.  Someone who has no choices, no options, and lives life according to someone else’s rules would likely feel cornered and seek to exert power and control over anything.

Another caveat is that the idea of “choice” is subjective.  Keep in mind that while many options might be available to someone, they might not be the “right” options and therefore cause a power scramble.

What comes to mind is a boss, politician or leader – they have different options while in office than out of office/position.  If those options prove to be unsatisfying, they might begin to abuse the power they DO have.


The study also found that people who felt like they had less (or no) power would go to great lengths, spend more time, travel further, and make greater sacrifices in order to gain more options.  Marketers and sales representatives play on this all of the time and now we know exactly what they are doing – and can use it too.

People, especially those with little want options.  They are looking for choices. This makes it easier for you to introduce them.

How to use this information

Know Thyself

How about you? Take some time and identify areas of your life in which you feel like you have plenty of options and choices and those in which you do not.

Assess areas of your life in which you feel the need to (or just daydream about) exert power over others. Can you imagine options or choices that would allow you to release the need or desire to exert power over others?

Knowing these things about yourself will make it more difficult for other people to exploit them as “chinks in your armor” during negotiation.  It will help you to identify some of the beliefs that can lead to behaviors that are detrimental to negotiation – like the need for power and ego-driven decisions.

It will also give you an opportunity to open up options in areas in which you feel relatively powerless and release the unnecessary stress that accompanies the ongoing need to accumulate power and exert it over other people.

Know Others

This new understanding sheds some light on why people grasp for power – and it is really useful information for negotiation.  If people have options, they do not seek to assert power over others.  If they are deprived of options, they do.  It would seem that options are more important than power.

Knowing this, if you experience a power monger in negotiation, you have an idea where that behavior might be coming from.  They may be grasping for power because of a perceived lack of options in some aspect of the negotiation.  It’s a clue for you to investigate.

It might signal that you are their only (or best) option.  It might signal that the deal is a make-or-break one for their company.

Get Creative!

Wake up your creative mind – your whole brain – and come up with some options!

Knowing how to access your creativity AND activate other people toward new solutions is a huge asset in negotiation. Oftentimes you get so mired down in the particulars of a negotiation (even those at the dinner table!) that you lose the focus on interests and solutions.

When power struggles show up in negotiation, use your creative mind to design novel approaches to problems and open up new potential solutions.  You might even be able to prevent impasse or other fear/ego/no-choices driven power struggles at the negotiation table.

How?  Rapport. Questions.

Introducing options to a power-driven negotiation partner can be tricky.  It has to be done in a way that doesn’t threaten their perceived power in any way.  Rapport skills are the key.

In order to find those options, you will likely need more information.  In order to get that new information in a way that doesn’t seem like an interrogation you need good rapport skills (more on that later).

If you are new to the art of rapport and want to get started learning more, here are two of my favorite books on the subject:

“The Magic Of Rapport” by Jerry Richardson.

“How To Win Friends And Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.

In order to prompt creativity and introduce new solutions without seeming to take away power from your negotiation partner, you will also need to know how to ask open-ended questions that identify the interests of the other party.

Open-ended questions encourage discussion because they cannot readily be answered with one word or phrase.  They get the conversation going.  Here are a few examples of open-ended questions that can help you to get the information you need in order to introduce new options to a power-hungry negotiation partner…

“What is the most important aspect of ____ from your point of view?”

“What would happen if_____…?”

“How did you decide to_____…?”

“Can you please explain the process for_____…?”

“How did you get involved in____…?”

“What prompted you to seek our services?”

“How would your situation be different if_____…?”

My book, Beyond Rainmaking, is full of innovative and easy ways to tap into your creative abilities. In the meantime try using the questioning methods and see what happens.  You will be surprised how well they work!

So go forth into the weekend and try some of this new knowledge.  See if you can’t be the person that keeps the holiday running smoothly!


Happy Memorial Day (in the U.S.)



[i] Inesi, Ena, Simona Botti, David Dubois, Derek D.Rucker and Adam D. Galinsky. Power and Choice: Their Dynamic Interplay in Quenching the Thirst for Personal Control. Psychological Science, 2011 (in press)


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