Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More
I had an epiphany the other day…and it wasn’t related to Tim Tebow! The “aha” moment involved the concept of power and the unexpected way it might play out in a meaningful relationship. This new concept, the reciprocal if not paradoxical nature of power and vulnerability, is based on recent formal and informal coaching work with various clients and colleagues. And some investigative work in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary helped transform my intuition into insight. Consider this listing of “Seven Definitions and Synonyms of Power”:
7. Empower. Finally, power as a verb is instructive: “to give strength to: to make powerful.” I especially like a second definition: “to supply with or propel by means of motive power” and “to give impetus to.” (Regarding the word impetus, in addition to common synonyms such as push and drive, I would also add the more subtle connotations, to touch and to move – both emotionally and to spur to movement or action, i.e., the motion in emotion.)
Clearly there is a qualitative difference in the first three power definitions – force, strength, and control – and the last three definitions – ability, influence, and empower. And authority seems to bridge the two camps, especially when envisioning “permissive authority” in contrast to one that “compels obedience.” I envision an authority based on the differential yet mutual recognition of strengths and resources in all parties; there is the potential for reciprocal learning, and the foundation of this authoritative power comes from the power to persuade through objective and heartfelt information, ideas and stories. This positive authority also grants permission or responsibly delegates discretionary power to others. (Of course, in times of crisis or imminent danger, for good and bad, people tend to follow the lead of those in positions of “authority.”)
Turning Negative Power into Positive Empowerment
The first three power terms seem a triumvirate or a troika – in my mind force, strength, and control are often associated with superior-subordinate, one up-one down, power-pawn relationships. However, another perspective can be discovered even within our word sets. Imagine force, strength and control used to promote self-growth rather than exploit others. Now the essence of these terms and the power dynamic has changed. (Of course, the converse also applies; the leader of a clique or gang often has great influence, yet too often with negative consequences.) Positive self-empowerment:
a. Harnesses Energy and Discipline – harnesses an individual’s own ability to both focus and flexibly flow with energy, passion and discipline through trial and error and repeated practice,
b. Pursues Purpose, Meaning and Mission – pursues developing one’s sense of purpose (including “purposeful play”) and the search for meaning and mission,
c. Cultivates and Integrates Knowledge and Talents – cultivates and integrates one’s experience and knowledge, cultural heritage, skills and talents, and
d. Manages and Demonstrates Performance Process – manages performance anxiety and demonstrates a capacity for successful exploratory and goal-directed performance.
For example, learning to channel and focus aggression is a vital component of peak performance in such diverse pursuits as sports, the arts and public speaking. Hey, I bring aggressive energy to my role as a writer. And, not surprisingly, such an enlightened individual often becomes a role model, one who helps empower others. (Hmm…maybe we are “Tebowing” a bit, after all.)
Which leads us to the final three – ability, influence, and empower – terms that comprise a trio or threesome, more a person-situation contingent, interactive, and mutually engaging or “give and take” and “ebb and flow” exchange of emotions and ideas yielding renewed energy, knowledge, and skill-building. Now let’s see if we can apply the abstract to the world of real interaction or at least with a simulation.
A Power Jolting Exercise
In a recent “give and take” session, a colleague shared the powerful emotional impact of my communication and control workshop exercise. She was surprised that the mini-role play had touched her so personally. (In light of her dysfunctional and draining work environment, perhaps it was not so surprising that a “Drop the Rope” exercise struck such a strong chord.) Basically, the exercise involves presenting an imaginary rope to a workshop participant and provocatively inviting the individual to engage with me in a “tug of war.” That is, I tell the person to “sit up straight, feet on the ground, grab the rope with two hands, and get ready to pull at the count of three…” Now most people will slip into role, though some will refuse the “rope.” I suspect some folks fear being embarrassed; others don’t know exactly what’s going on and perhaps are less adventuresome or just want to retain control.
With invisible rope in hand, and the other individual beginning to tense, in anticipation of our face-off, at the count of “two” and beginning to mouth “three,” with both our muscles straining, I suddenly let go of the rope. And then ask, “What just happened?” With a sheepish look, the other person usually feigns falling backwards. While I minimize any embarrassment by saying, “I better start running; I can tell, this guy (or gal) is probably coming after me.” There’s a Keystone Cops quality to the interaction, and frequently we have a laugh.
“Drop the Rope”: Fast Food for Thought
However, this rapid-fire role play may well provide some powerful insight. (Actually, the interplay also sets up a discussion on the “Six ‘C’ Dynamics of Power Struggles” and a power struggle exercise involving the entire audience. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.) How do you not take the bait when someone is provocatively fishing for an argument or power struggle? The challenge becomes not instinctively pulling back when someone offers you a rope and then “yanks your chain.” You don’t have to prove you can give (or be) as big a jerk. In fact, you can just “drop the rope.” This is not a sign of weakness. Not wanting to play this self-defeating or dysfunctional game, you can say with energy and conviction, “This tugging back and forth isn’t working for me, I don’t know about for you? Can we come up with a more productive way to address your grievance or solve our problem?” Power comes from voicing your integrity and not being afraid to set limits and boundaries.
Through the “pulling the rope” exercise, my colleague came to realize that in her own dysfunctional circumstance while the power struggle rope didn’t really exist she was accepting and struggling with the entrapping bait. She was not only disempowering herself but giving her boss more power than he actually had. Learning to “Drop the Rope,” to let go of “being right” and getting past the palpable “unfairness” (in an environment that was not interested in engagement, justice, reform…or fairness) was critical to extricating herself and achieving “R & R”: not simply “Rest and Relaxation” but actually “R & R & R” – knowing when to “Retreat and Retool” before deciding when, where and how to “Return” to her organization.) This realization was part of her evolving empowerment and eventual liberation process. (Also knowing that the power is too one-sided, sometimes you need to call in an objective third party. And if this option is not available…alas, you may need to be updating the old resume.)
Real Relief and Belief through Grief
Frequently, this kind of letting go, seeing past the blinding outrage, only comes with some grieving. When feeling unfairly judged, maligned or the subject of subterfuge or basically being “forced out” by a dysfunctional person and/or situation, it’s hard not to experience being out of control, or seen as injured or invaded. It often takes courageous tears of “feeling your sorrow” (as opposed to “feeling sorry for yourself”) to cleanse wounds of hurt and humiliation. As I once penned:
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.
And once you are mostly past the teeth-clenching unfairness and/or the ego- or dependency-fueled rage, grief compels a quiet time and soulful space for “how did I get myself into this mess” reflection and for “where do I go from here” support, planning and action. As widely-admired 20th c. Algerian-French author and philosopher, Albert Camus, observed: Once we have accepted the fact of loss, we understand that the loved one [or loved position; or detested person, as it were] has obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a sky washed by rain.
A Pawn or Partner in the Power Game
As I said, the spark from a colleague in the context of recent counseling experiences conjured an image of power that was both very interactive and turned the forceful, superior-subordinate dynamic on its head. But my perspective was not simply shaped by recent encounters. Over the years, personal and professional roles and relations have confirmed an “ability” and “empowering influence” as a careful and understanding listener. If patient, attentive and authoritative listening is foundational, then the first floor is a capacity to engage through “good questions.” More than ever, in a hyper-speed and distracted world, it is vital to connect to and elicit other peoples’ beliefs and ideas and emotions. And a communicator who models laughing at one’s flaws and foibles while enabling folks to believe they have been genuinely seen and heard wields a gentle yet subtle power. This semantic “power” threesome – careful listening, sensitive questioning, and mutual laughing – fosters a sharing that allows one party to feel it is safe to be temporarily dependent and vulnerable, to trust the other’s ability and authority within the context of an honest and open, a non-manipulative and mutual partnership. Individuals and groups often feel energized and more “empowered” to act.
Contemplating “Inspiring Power and Partnership,” two perspectives on power relations emerge:
1. Partner Power. I’m calling the use of domineering force or intimidating notions of strength and control, where exploiting, manipulating, bullying, pulling rank, or “using” the other is the typical mode of interaction, “Pawn-oriented Power.” Conversely, “Partner-oriented Power,” an open, increasingly secure and solid relationship climate based on a non-coercive, “give and take” sharing of power, tends to evolve over time when both parties recognize the value of and possibility for:
a. the gradual belief that it is safe to share one’s vulnerability or self-doubt, while still having one’s emotional strengths and resources affirmed,
b. a relationship capable of both interdependency and appropriate dependency; naturally, the person feeling most vulnerable (or capable) is subject to change with shifting sands of time, circumstance, health, motivation, ability, skills, and resources,
c. careful and compassionate, analytic and empathic, head and heart listening,
d. often followed by selective, emotionally sensitive and thoughtful, responsible and responsive “good questions” and the meaningful exploration and engagement with the other’s perspective and point of view,
e. the appropriate use of “self-effacing” humor (reflecting a sense of humility, humanity and openness); remember, as the Stress Doc penned: People are more open to a serious message that is gift-wrapped with humor,
f. the option of making tentative suggestions along with recommendations grounded in firm conviction, while still being receptive to counter-feedback and diverging perspective,
g. engaging in mutual discussion as well as respectful, real and candid disagreement (candor can be assertive and genuine, yet still enable a person to save face when strategically tactful or sensitive to the other’s self-esteem and identity; such candor is preferred to honesty used as a weapon to demean and demoralize),
h. recognizing and respecting basic experiential, personality, and cultural differences, and, finally,
i. the understanding that following the above psychological and communicational map of engagement often paves the way for the evolution of trust.
Actually, these steps provide another power pathway – “Partner Power.” The ongoing evolution of trust may be the most vital and powerful interpersonal process for building or strengthening a relationship. It is certainly foundational for forging an ongoing supportive, strategic and, especially, a synergistic alliance – whereby not only is “the whole greater than the sum of the parts” but the free flowing communication, camaraderie, and creative interplay between or among the parts means these “parts can evolve and transform into partners.”
2. The Interdependence of Partner Power. While trust may be a consequence of “Partner Power,” a willingness to risk and trust may also provide an infusion of power into a partner. Though there may be a decidedly more vulnerable party, nonetheless, from a “give and take” perspective both individuals are part of the shared and evolving power equation. Let me explain. First, I knew a person’s vulnerability is often crisis-driven and thus time-limited. While a person’s strengths may be partially eclipsed by momentary depletion and self-doubt, they are usually still clear to my way of perceiving, thinking, and listening. Momentary feelings of self-doubt or helplessness don’t necessarily foreshadow long term hopelessness or dependency, especially if the vulnerable party can reach out for support in a timely fashion. During the “crisis window” the individual is feeling disoriented, and defenses are lowered. However, this state of vulnerability often opens a person to new problem-solving approaches along with expanded support systems and resources in order to regain control and psychic equilibrium. While crisis is a time of danger, it is also an opportunity for significant or surprising, if not creative and synergistic, growth.
But the new insight, or perhaps it’s more a reframe, is that the vulnerable person still carries considerable power, especially within an ever evolving and reciprocal relationship where one person may be “better or worse” at a moment in (or for periods of) time. A healthy partnership recognizes the fluid, seesaw-like nature of a relationship, and creates a climate where vital issues, including personal vulnerability as well as differences in strengths and competencies may, and sometimes must, be explored and even tested. This “being periodically put to the test” is likely necessary for meaningful trust, real reciprocity, and interdependence to evolve, not erode, over time.
As mentioned, feeling entrapped in a web of change, conflict, and crisis may heighten one’s perceived vulnerability, including a need for more personal sharing along with a caring ear and shoulder; such uncertainty or confusion may motivate a search for guidance and resources. (Alas, a rigid, “fight or flight” Rambo or Rambette coping pattern may preclude reaching out. It’s why I say strong silent types often get more ulcers than Oscars!) Still, for a healthy, functional partnership, when one party is under duress, is the other party viewed as a caring and competent resource capable of responding effectively? For example, in my coaching work, does the other party trust that I am trustworthy? Is the other person comfortable with the common and dissimilar ways we share and engage? Is he willing to allow me incremental access to some of the recesses of his mind, heart, and even his soul? If I’m able to accept and patiently listen to my own painful and vulnerable memories, emotions, and life experience, without being too quick to assess, diagnose, or judge, intimate sharing is more likely to proceed. Especially, if I can ask questions that say to the other, “I truly want to know your ideas and experience,” that is, “I want to understand your pain and passion, purpose and power (and/or lack thereof).”
And being stimulated by such important and intense sharing invariably heightens and hones my concentration and insight, my intuition and empathy. The vulnerable party-partner (despite a doubting self-image) is a courageous and an integral player in an interactive process that infuses me with energy, humility, and emotion as well as moving me to both analytic and compassionate engagement. The intimate-vulnerable other has helped unleash my power, has given me license to share my authority, ability and influence (mostly as a skilled listener and occasional problem-solver), to support and empower. Clearly, unlike “Pawn Power” which often exploits dependency, role and resource discrepancy, or lesser status, “Partner Power” creates a two-way, ebb and flow transfusion that ultimately empowers both parties.
This essay has provided a hierarchical listing of various meanings of the word “power” – from power based on coercion to power bases on persuasion. At the same time, even a negative conception of power can take on a positive and empowering tone when self-directed. Moving beyond the abstract, power is examined through the lens of real world interaction or at least role-paying simulation. Learning to “drop the rope” and “letting go” through grief sets the stage for paradoxically transforming feelings of loss into new possibilities and pathways of power. Finally, contemplating “Inspiring Power and Partnership,” two perspectives on power relations emerge: 1) “Partner Power” (in contrast to Pawn-oriented Power), including the psychological and interactive steps essential for its development, and 2) “The Interdependence of Partner Power” – whereby times of crisis vulnerability often motivate one party to risk and open up emotionally and also infuse power into the other party along with eliciting a readiness to provide support. This crisis interdependency provides uncommon if not synergistic problem-solving opportunity for both parties…parts may be able to transform into partners!