How do you harness power? In this lesson, we will use the lens of Kenneth Boulding, who identified three different approaches to power: persuasion, threats, and cooperation.

Students will use several short stories to analyze different types of power. While discussing the role of power in these short stories, students will practice communication skills essential to conflict transformation, specifically attentive listening and informed speech (drawing abstract conclusions from concrete evidence).

Background Reading For Teachers: 


  • Students will be able to identify different uses of power.
  • Students will compare and contrast two short stories, evaluating the power tactics of the characters.
  • Students will analyze the effects of threats.

McRel Standards:

  • Behavioral Studies
    Standard 2 (Level III.1,2,3) Understands various meanings of social group, general implications of group membership, and different ways that groups function
    Standard 4 (Level III. 1) Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions
  • Language Arts
    Standard 1 (Level III.) Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
  • Life Skills, Working with Others
    Standard 2 (Level IV. 7) Uses conflict-resolution techniques


Procedure: 3 hours

How does power affect conflict? (hour 1)

  1. Split the class into three groups. Give each group the task of gathering information for Where is the Power?. Ask them all to use the internet to answer the questions on the worksheet.
  2. Speak to each group quietly and separately when giving directions.
    • To the first group, explain that if they finish their worksheet first they will each get a chocolate.
    • To the second group, explain that whoever comes in last will have to do an extra worksheet during lunch or after school (or whatever punitive measure is possible at your school).
    • Tell the third group that getting the worksheet done quickly will help everyone to be more informed about power. It will help you (the teacher) because you need to work out the kinks in the worksheet. Ask for feedback on it as an exercise. Explain that this will be a joint process to determine if this exercise is useful or not. Also explain that you need to know how quickly it takes to finish, so you'd like them to try to finish the worksheet as quickly as possible so that you will know in the future how much time to assign for it.
  3. When students are done, debrief:
    Explain that, in this exercise, you used your power as an authority figure to encourage your students to finish the worksheet as quickly as possible. Ask a representative from each group to recount the consequences of winning or losing.
  4. Define power together and ask them to write the definition in their conflict journals.
  5. Write Carrot, Stick, and Hug on the board. Explain that this is a way of thinking about power articulated by Kenneth Boulding. See the article by Máire A. Dugan titled "Power" for more information. Explain that with one group you used the "Carrot" approach. With another the "Stick" and with the third, a "Hug" approach. Ask the students to determine which was which and how the treatments made them feel. Explain that the "Carrot" approach uses persuasion to get something, the "Stick" approach uses threats, and the "Hug" approach uses cooperation. In the end, all approaches are meant to get someone else to do what one wants. Ask students to take notes in their conflict journals.
    Note: Be prepared to hear that the stick method was most effective. Use this to inspire discussion about different approaches and the results of each.
  6. Read H.G. Wells' "The Country of the Blind."

    Homework: If you do not finish "The Country of the Blind" in class, finish it for homework. Complete the worksheet Blind Power for homework as well.

How does power affect conflict? (hour 2)

  1. Debrief H.G. Wells' "The Country of the Blind." Note the power of ideology in the discussion.
  2. Read Langston Hughes' "Thank You M'am." Ask students to complete the Power in "Thank You M'am" worksheet in small groups.
  3. Using the Literature Discussion form, structure a class discussion around power tactics used in the two short stories. Explain that students will be graded on their contributions to class discussion, their ability to use concrete evidence from the text to support their arguments, and their listening skills (demonstrated by referring to other's points and asking clarifying questions).
  4. Give students several minutes to answer the question silently and search for evidence in the stories before the discussion begins. (Please note: This style of discussion is based on the Great Books approach. Visit their website for resources and workshop dates).

    Homework: Write an essay explaining the three approaches of power discussed in class (coercive, persuasive, and cooperative). Use the Power Report worksheet to help structure your writing. The Report Rubric will be used to grade your work.

How does power affect conflict? (hour 3)

  1. Explain that the use of power in the form of threats is the quickest way to escalate (or intensify) conflicts.
  2. Split students up into small groups. Ask them to brainstorm as many threats that a teacher could tell his or her students as possible.
  3. Write Probable, Possible, Impossible on the board and ask students to write two of the their best threats under the most appropriate categories.
  4. Discuss how they could evaluate what threats were Probable, Possible, or Impossible. Explain that the impossible threats carry no weight...
  5. Next Discuss:
    • What threats are strongest?
    • What does the person who uses the threats have to do to make sure they are believable?
    • Why are threats motivating to the person being threatened? (fear?)
    • How does the person threatened usually feel?
  6. Ask students to read "Revenge and the Backlash Effect" by Guy and Heidi Burgess and Michelle Maiese and complete the Backlash worksheet in groups of three. The article is quite difficult. It will be a useful exercise for tackling difficult text. The worksheet is intended to help students read closely and check for meaning. It might also be useful to ask students for a list of ten vocabulary words from the article and their definitions, as well as a summary of the article to ensure understanding.
  7. Ask students to complete Power Unbalanced in small groups.
  8. End class with a discussion of the final question:
    If you were a member of the Afghan government, how would you deal with the hostage threat from the Taliban?

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.