Conflict and the Power of Cute

The pallinos were popping at the Gilpin Meadows extreme bocce pitch that summer afternoon. I didn’t expect it to be the setting for yet another lesson in about power. We paused our game (collectively trying to remember the score, if memory serves) when I noticed two young Brownies standing a few yards away. The older of the two (obviously a veteran of the Girl Guide Cookie campaigns) urged the younger to “ask them”: The younger of the two, blue eyes downcast, blond pony tail swaying, reluctantly approached us and mumbled “would you like to buy some cookies”. My hard-hearted friends politely declined, but I found my hand reaching for my wallet and heard myself saying “I’ll take two”. My purchase was especially curious, given that I was abstaining from sugar at the time. As the Brownies waved their “thank you” and departed in search of their next victim, my friends unleashed the inevitable barrage of cheap shots about how I was an “easy mark”. One cheekily suggested I should take one of my own assertiveness courses. My only defence was “but she was so cute!”

Power and influence were clearly at play that day at the park and I pondered what had motivated me to buy cookies I did not intend to eat. Bernie Mayer, in his excellent book The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution devotes a chapter to “Power and Conflict”. He defines power as “the ability to get one’s needs met and to further one’s goals” and delves into the various sources of power:

  • formal authority (positional power in a formal structure, such as a judge or police officer)
  • legal prerogative (exercising rights under the law)
  • information (knowledge as power)
  • association (it’s “who you know”)
  • resources (control over or access to money, time, labour)
  • nuisance (the power of “the flea over the dog”)
  • procedural (control or influence over the decision-making process)
  • habitual power (power of inertia)
  • moral (accepted cultural values)
  • personal characteristics (ranging from charisma to communication skills)

Bernie suggests that these various sources of power can be boiled down to aspects of “reward and sanction” – someone can help us meet our needs and achieve our goals or hinder us in those pursuits. In my “negotiation” over the Girl Guide Cookies, the young Brownie had few sources of power available to her. She may have relied on “moral power” (society values volunteer organizations and charities), but more formidably, she relied on “reverential power” – the power of cute.

In this case, she appealed not to my need for sustenance or nutrition, but to my self-image as a kind and supportive person. Was I the type of person who would disappoint a shy young girl who had barely mustered up the courage to approach us? No – I was the type of person would support someone to venture beyond their comfort zone – and who felt good when I did.

Reverential power (of which charisma would be part) relies of people feeling good about supporting us (or perhaps feeling guilty if they don’t). Stephen Covey refers to the “psychological bank account” of our relationships. When we have supported another person, they are more likely to grant a favour. This may stem from a cultural norm of fairness (“he helped me in the past, how can I refuse him now?”) or from one’s identity as a good friend (“friend help each other”). Whatever their motive, the other person feels better for assisting us. By giving to others and building supportive relationships, we increase our ability to influence – even though we may not be able to rely on the “power of cute”, per se.

About Gary Harper, The Joy of Conflict Resolution

Gary Harper is the principal of Harper and Associates. He is a trainer, writer and facilitator who specializes in conflict resolution. Through his unique blend of experience as a personal injury lawyer, general manager, insurance regulator and retail store owner, he learned the value of clear communication and conflict resolution skills. Since 1991 he has trained and mediated in a wide variety of organizations - from health care to the film industry to many levels of government. He is a member of the instructional team of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B. C. and recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home.
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