6 Covert Power Moves That Seem Friendly, But Harm You

picture of a smiling woman shaking hands while hiding a knife

This is a foundational article to understand power dynamics.

In this article, you are going to learn to read the hidden dynamics of power.

You will enter into a higher status of power-awareness that most people are oblivious of, and that will give you a tremendous advantage in life.

So let’s start:


Power moves increase the social status of the attacker/perpetrator and decrease the status of the receiver/victim.

Some of these power moves are obvious and anyone can recognize them as attempts at asserting dominance.

But some other social power moves are so common and/or so socially accepted that many don’t even recognize their effects on the dynamics of power.
And some people, because they take them at face value, even mistake them for words of submissiveness.
I call them “covert power moves” (note: I renamed them from the”hidden power moves”).

This article will show what these covert power moves are, and what you can do to address them.

1. I Was Busy

This is one of the most common and pervasive power moves out there.

But don’t let the pervasiveness fool you, because this is the rule of thumb: the more people are too busy for you, the more subservient to them you are.

This is what “too busy” says:

I was busy (with more important things) to take care of your (less important) thing

You, or your task, were not high priority enough for them to take care of.
“Sorry I was busy,” says that they have more important things to do and, ultimately, that they are more important than you (higher social status).

But could it be that they were really just too busy?
Of course!
But even then, it’s still a power move.

Just think about it: would anyone who cares about their job be too busy for their boss? Or for the man/woman of their dreams?

It’s never a matter of business, it’s always a matter of priority. Telling someone you were too busy is akin to saying “you aren’t high enough of a priority”.

Similar expressions are:

I didn’t have time

Sorry if I was late

I had to take care of a few things

I meant to get back to you, but then a few things came up…

Beating “I Was Too Busy”

Imagine this dating scenario:

You: Hi Gina, I wrote you the other day to schedule a coffee
Her: Yes, sorry I was crazy busy these days

Let’s forget for a second that it’s a terrible text to send, and let’s analyze the most common ways most guys reply with:

You: what were you busy with?

This is not ideal because she is now expanding and focusing on everything which is a higher priority than you are.

Also, maybe she wasn’t busy with anything. And now she’s forced to make up stories. That reinforces in her mind you are a bothersome man she is bending over backward… In order to avoid.
Not what you want.

Here is another typical reply:

You: No worries, life happens

This is the neutral reply.

It’s good because your ready-made excuse gets her off the hook (thread-expanding). Now at least she’s not expending effort (thread-expanding) on made-up lies to avoid you.

But it’s still not ideal. You are downplaying her non-reply, but you are also still the one down.

The one-up backs instead are:

You: Yeah, sorry I didn’t ping you sooner, life’s hectic sometimes

It implies she wasn’t high priority enough to pursue harder, and that you too are busy.

You: All cool. I just got back in town from a video shoot and wanted to catch up.
(attaches a cool picture)
How have you been.

This one takes a more active approach to raising his own value.

“How have you been” ends with a covert power move of his own, since probably she hasn’t been doing anything that compares to his lifestyle.

And if you two aren’t very close, and you’re meeting in person, here is the one-up:

You:  That’s how life goes most of the times. (looking at her with a fake embarrassed expression) Sorry… I’m really bad with names…
Oh yeah right, of course Gina!

However, we’re not big fans here of playing power moves.
It’s turkey behavior and not very effective with the highest quality people.

See Power University for the more effective, highest-quality approaches and mindsets.

Handling it with collaborative frames

And, finally, of course, we get the collaborative frame technique.

See an example here:

I reply one day late as well, and when I say “we can be quicker” I imply that we were both slower.
This is a technique of both “pacing & leading”, and “power aligning”: you have the power to keep me waiting, but so do I.
And then, the leading part: “give me your private ID, since we can be quicker there”, which is also a win-win.

This is a specific technique that applies the more general “enlightened collaborator approach“.

2. I’m Sorry

Would you ever think that “I’m sorry” could be a power move?

Welcome to The Power Moves!

Think of the power dynamics it entails: “sorry” means that someone has hurt you, wronged you, or caused you harm.
And, from a social power point of view, power usually rests with the one who has the most power to hurt the other.

Imagine all these situations:

Her: I’m sorry you felt hurt that I and Max spoke for so long

= “I’m sorry (that I am so attractive and above your league that you get hurt because of it)“.

Or imagine this one:

Coach: I’m sorry that I yelled at you in front of the team

= “I’m sorry that I (can) yelled at you (while you have to take it) in front of the team (and ruined your reputation because I can ruin it).

Boss: I’m sorry that I said you’re useless in front of the customer

= “I’m sorry I’m the boss and you are the underling, and even if you bring the customers in, I can still pull rank on you any time I want“.

And here is a video example from Spread:

Him: “I’m sorry for what happened (I called you an asshole, I kicked you out, I called you a whore… I’m sorry”

He reminds her that he kicked her out (very dominant) and that he made her feel bad (very powerful).

Notice also her reply.
She is a very socially skilled woman and doesn’t commit the obvious mistake of saying “it’s OK” or “no problem”.

Why would have that been a bad move?
Because “it’s OK” would expand the power-down thread, and further confirm his power over her.

Instead, she cuts right past the “I’m sorry” power move. Not bad!

When There’s No “I’m Sorry”: Only Power Move

The first example in this video:

Beating “I’m Sorry”

How do you react to “I’m sorry” power moves?

If it’s a power move, don’t say “thank you for saying that”.
And of course, don’t look like you were indeed hurt by their behavior, and don’t let the exchange linger on the apology phase for too long.

Why not?

Because the longer you linger on the “sorry” phase, the more you highlight you’re the one down.

Instead, minimize it, rebuild your own status with a quick comment, and then move on quickly.
Something like this:

You: nono, it’s all good, I’m (doing) great. Anyway, I’ve heard that… ”

A power move-type of reply would be:

You: I forgive you

By saying “I forgive you” you shift the power from them to you. You could decide whether or not to forgive, and you decided to grant absolution.

If you want to go down harder, you should make the apology a real apology.
Like this:

Boss: I’m sorry that I said you’re useless in front of the customer
You: Thank you. Do you see why I had to flag that? It was bad for me, of course, but also for us as a company.
Boss: I do, and that’s why I’m telling you I’m sorry
You: If you understand why it wasn’t cool, then we can move on
Boss: Great
You: I am really glad to hear that, thank you boss. Back to doing some great stuff together now. Let’s do lunch as soon as we’re free, cheers!

The above is tricky if it was your boss since you must keep a good relationship, so calibrate to your power and environment.
If it was a colleague, you could go down a bit harder, though. For example, you make him promise that it won’t happen again. For example: “But make sure it won’t happen again please”.

Exceptions: When “I’m Sorry” Empowers You

There are situations where just “I’m sorry” is enough to rebalance the power.
For example, if the coach yelled at you in front of the team and you requested him to apologize to you in front of the whole team again, then it’s your power move. In that case, you can take charge of it and build upon it.
Say “it’s OK coach, I’m glad you are making up for it. We can move on”.

3. I Don’t Remember You

The dynamic is the same as with being busy:

the less someone remembers you, the more important they make themselves to be.

When someone doesn’t remember or, sometimes, pretends they don’t remember you, they are saying that you are a low priority in their life -or that their life is so full of important things that they are obviously of higher quality than you are-.

The mistake that many do here is trying to feed the power mover with information to help them remember you.
When you do that, you are communicating that they are a high priority for you.

Dealing With Forgetful Power Movers

Look at this scene from the movie “Play the Game”, and reflect on what he is doing wrong:

Him: we have met before
Her: really, when (disempowering frame starts)
Him: I’m a little hurt you don’t remember (thread-expands on disempowering frame)
Her: (teases him, expands even more) so… Where have met (she takes charge and tasks him)
Him: (reminds her how they met)
Her: right, you were mister trivial pursuit, trying to stop me (the final frame is him chasing her, him wanting her & her not wanting him.. And not even remembering him)

As he feeds her information about him one issue becomes more and more obvious: she didn’t care enough to remember.
On the other hand, he remembered everything about her, thus communicating it was a big thing for him.
He is heavily invested, she is not.

Also, read:


4. “Why Would You Choose to Be Mediocre?”

This is a covert frame.

We will review social frames here through two different types of questions:

– Loaded question = a question that presupposes
– Leading question = a question that nudges you towards a certain answer

They’re not the same, but for our purposes in this lesson, there’s enough overlap that we can consider them together.

Both of them are designed to wrestle control of the interaction and push you either into a defensive position or into the option the asker has chosen for you -which rarely if ever is the option you want to be in-.

Sometimes loaded questions are obvious, but many more times they are not as easy to spot. An example of a loaded question could be your partner being super emotional and asking you:

Her: how could you do such a terrible thing to me

If she says it very emotionally her words sound congruent, and many people miss the preconceived frame behind that expression -that’s one of the secrets of women’s relationship control-.
The preconceived frame within that expression is that you did do something terrible.

Of course, you might have done something bad.
But who says it was “terrible”? Maybe it was just “bad” or it was a “terrible mistake”, which is much different than just “terrible”.
By accepting the adjective “terrible” though, you are immediately cast as the evil one, and at that point, you can only explain, defend and hope to make it up to your partner.

Beating Covert Frames

Loaded questions are a form of covert frames to nudge you, or trick you, into accepting the interrogator’s frame of reference.

And when you do accept it, it doesn’t even matter how you reply to a leading question. Whether you agree, defend, or push back, you are still buying into their frames.

The only way to answer leading questions is by rejecting them.
And two particularly effective ways of rejecting the frame are to:

  1. Explain you don’t agree with their choice of words and change it to what’s most suitable
  2. Explain to them -and to everyone around- what their game is (“going meta” technique)

You want to use the first one when you want to be kind and understanding.
The above example with your partner would look something like this:

Her: How could you do such a terrible, terrible mean thing to me
Him: Honey, I have no words to say how sorry I am. Let me just say it wasn’t mean, or out of meanness. It’s an issue I have with controlling my spending. And taking your credit card was the biggest mistake of my life. I have an issue I need to cope with, I do realize that.

In this case, he didn’t even go after her words in his reply, since that would have led to a different kind of escalation. But embedded in his own reply there is a reframing of the situation from “terrible and mean” to “issue and mistake”.

And here is an example of the second one:

Calling out the covert power move and explaining it is a very effective technique

5. How Can I Help You

It is seemingly nice and polite, but outside of a shop, it’s often now what you want to hear.

Here they are framing you like the one who needs help.
And the one who needs help might also be the one who has to bend over backward to secure that help.
Or, at least, to give something back.

6. That’s Why I Like You

This sounds like a compliment, but it’s nothing more than judgment (masked as positive).

Remember that judging flows from the most powerful person toward the subordinate?
If not check “judge power dynamics“.

The person who says they like you is passing judgment on you. The compliment receiver is basically doing a good job to be liked by the more powerful compliment giver. Not really an enviable power position, is it?

Here is an example from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street:


Wolf: That’s why I love you (while he puts his hand around him)

Right there you know Di Caprio is the most powerful man in the room.

This is also a move Trump often engages in.
He often goes around telling people “good job”. He often has no idea whether they are actually doing a good job because he uses it as a power move only.
He even said it to Comey before firing him. When Trump says “good job” he is simply positioning himself as the judge and as the most powerful man who is checking up on others.

7. “You Were Good, So I Reward You”

I leave you now with one picture and a few notes.
This is for you to think about.

  • How was this a covert power move?
  • How could one handle it successfully?

covert power move example with a linked in post
The answers are in Power University

For “credit inflating” also see “the social exchange“.


Power and power dynamics are not all about blatant and obvious attacks.

As a matter of fact, obvious and blatant attacks are rare. The vast majority of the time, you will be dealing with more nuanced power moves like undermining, covert frames, covert power moves, and micro-aggressions.

As we saw in this post, sometimes power moves that put you in the one-down hide behind seemingly helpful and kind words.
This post helped you recognize -and act- on the more covert power moves.

This is a small excerpt from Power University.

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