By Guy Harris

How is a cell phone like a coaching conversation, a car like a conflict resolution conversation, or a windmill like a project planning session?

They all have a power source.

Cell phones, coaching conversations, cars, conflict resolution, windmills, and project planning are all driven by power sources. And the power source needs to fit the situation.

Cell phones run on electricity. Cars (mostly) run on gasoline. Windmills run on wind. 

You would not put gasoline in a cell phone, run a windmill by plugging it in to a wall outlet, or hope the wind would push your car. You would not use a power source that did not fit the device.

The same thing applies to different communication situations. Each situation we encounter and each relationship we have calls for a different source of communication power to make it go. If you want to achieve maximum communication effectiveness, apply the best source of communication power for that particular situation and avoid leaning on sources of power that are either not available or not applicable. 

The three sources of communication power you (might) have are:

  • Position

Your position relative to the other person. You could also call this your positional authority. Position driven communication sounds like this: 

    • Because I said so. 
    • I’m the boss.

While there are situations where this source of communication power is appropriate and possibly necessary, it tends in the direction of negative rather than positive and coercive rather than encouraging. It can often create short-term results at the expense of damaging the long-term relationship. You might need to use this source of power in some situations, and you also need to be aware of its limitations.

  • Expertise

Your perceived expertise. In other words, your expertise on the topic as perceived by the other person. If they believe you have a great deal of expertise on the topic, you have lots of expertise power. If they don’t believe you have expertise, you have no expertise power. The important thing to note here is that this source of power comes from the other person’s perception of your expertise more than your actual expertise.

Expertise driven communication sounds like this:

    • Here’s how I would do it.
    • If it were my decision, this is what I would do.
    • In my experience, here’s the best answer.
  • Relationship

Your relationship with the person. This source of communication power draws on the other person’s trust that your intentions are to help them rather than to harm, pressure, or coerce them.

Relationship driven communication often sounds like expertise driven communication. The difference is in what drives the other person to accept your perspective. Do they trust your perspective because they see you as experienced in this area or because they trust that you like and support them?


Your total communication power will usually come from a combination of these sources and will rarely be drawn from only one source. As a general rule, the more you have of all three, the better and more smoothly your communication will go. 

For example, if you are a person’s supervisor, they know that you have knowledge of the topic, and you have a long, positive relationship history, you have an abundance of communication power. Your communication technique could probably be imperfect, and the communication would still go well because you have so much communication power driving it. 

Likewise, if the only source of communication power you have or rely on is your position, be careful. There is a high risk that whatever you say will be heard as hurtful rather than helpful.

In every communication situation, you are more likely to achieve success if you first assess the sources of communication power you have in that situation and in that relationship. Then, focus on using the sources of power that best fit the situation, and avoid the sources of power that either do not fit or you do not have. 

For example:

  • Offering your perspective based on your experience is likely to fall on deaf ears if the person you are speaking with does not trust your experience.
  • An attempt to come across in a “buddy-buddy” fashion could irritate or trigger distrust rather than encourage and connect with a person if they do not see you as a friend.
  • Leaning too much on your position or authority to drive a conversation can leave the other person feeling unheard and misunderstood.

Just as you would not use gasoline to power a cell phone or trust wind to move your car, be careful of relying on a communication power source that you either do not have or does not fit the situation. 

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