The Use of Different Types of Power in Relationships

[Updated January 2017] During a life coaching session with a client the other day, I got to thinking about power use between people and its effects. One model that I am aware of was developed by French and Raven, two social psychologists, who proposed that there were bases of power. In 1965, Raven updated the model to include a sixth factor.

The six types of interpersonal power

  1. Legitimate – a formal position, perhaps given by an organisation
  2. Reward – being able to give something of value
  3. Coercive – being able to punish
  4. Expert – having valuable knowledge
  5. Referent – being able to make others feel good, leading to increased trust and acceptance
  6. Informational – similar to expert, except that the information provides power, not the person

Legitimate, reward and coercive power can be use appropriately or excessively – appropiate use produces bare minimum compliance whereas the excessive use produces defiance. Interestingly, using expert or referent power cannot be done inappropriately or excessively and only creates commitment.

The use of power in our personal relationships

And so I got to thinking about personal relationships and friendships, and how different people use these kinds of power.

Probably the most “unhealthy” of the lot would have to be using coercive power with friends and family. Apart from when raising children, who are we to use position power to manipulate another into doing what we want them to? My friends can make their own choices – I shouldn’t have to take some kind of bossy approach, promise some kind of reward or threaten with some kind of punishment. And yet, examples abound of people who command others, who bribe others with various rewards or who punish others by installing guilt and fear – often their partners, family and closest friends.

But we learn that these things can and do work. Our selfish selves can operate without us knowing.

As for me, I’d prefer to be known for referent power.

More information about interpersonal power

See Raven’s article The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence (2008).


  1. Adam Lamotte

    I’ve tried both to see what works.

    Looking at this from a relationship point of view. Personal power is more effective than positional power.

    I’ll have a chat to a personal trainer I know and I’ll ask what works for him.

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