NOT power OVER, but power WITH! How often have you heard this phrase, almost a chant, seeming to clarify, simplify, and resolve issues about power with just these six words. I’d like to invite you to look deeper.
From my perspective, there are two significant ways to misuse professional and personal power: over-using it and under-using it. In my Right Use of Power programs, I ask people, literally, to line up on a continuum based on their own assessment of where they tend to find themselves, One extreme end of the continuum is overuse of power and the other extreme end is underuse of power. The most egregious abuses of power occur at the extremes. By “over-use” I mean exploitation, domination, discrimination, physical abuse, and disempowerment. By “under-use”, I mean neglect, abandonment, naivete, undersight, failure to take charge, passivity, and avoidance.
Professionally, what we want and need to enable us to use our role power skillfully and sensitively is to be competent within a range on the continuum of under- and over-use that is appropriate to each situation and to each client. To increase this health and effective range, we need to understand power in a complex way. The sentence “Not power over, but power with,” contains, I believe, several common misinterpretations. By implication and common understanding, “power over” means over-use of power on the extreme end of the continuum where, indeed, great harm is caused. “Power with” seems by common understanding to mean that being equals and using power together, there is not longer a power differential and no harm will be caused. From my perspective, this idea of “power with” actually contributes to harmful misuses of power from the under-use extreme of the continuum.
As a professional, you use your unique combination of role power and personal power. Role power is the enhanced power that automatically accompanies your role. As a professional, you do have some kinds of “power over”. For example: you may have the power to hire and fire, evaluate results and performance, promote or downgrade, assign grades or tasks, treat symptoms, require compliance, maintain boundaries. You are up-power to your students, clients, employees, patients. Their health, effectiveness, and well-being actually depends upon your owning and using your role power. You can do “power over” in a way that causes great harm (a psychotherapy gets sexually involved with his or her client; a teacher shames a student; a doctor doesn’t listen to his or her patient’s inner sense) or you can do it with sensitivity, responsibility, and heartfulness. The important thing is to understand and own your role power rather than failing to acknowledge it and thus ending up causing harm by under-using your power.
You also have opportunities for exercising “power with” through collaborating and asking for, responding to feedback, and holding the big picture. Again, you can do “power with” in a way that causes harm (a psychotherapy has exploitive dual relationships; a teacher has an out of control classroom; a doctor conducts unnecessary tests) or in a way that empowers those “down power” to you through warmth, collaboration, acknowledgment, and providing clear and helpful feedback. The vital thing is neither to exaggerate nor to avoid professional role power, but to expand your self-awareness and your range of responses so that you can respond appropriately, sensitively, and skillfully.
Following is a chart that maps out this territory. I hope you will find it helpful. The triangles on the right hand side in the middle represent the range of responses that are right uses of power. Right uses of power are actions and attitudes that repair harm, prevent harm, and promote the common good. The necessary foundation of right use of power is your ability to bring together power and heart. In our discussion that would be bringing together the best of power over and the best of power with, moving sometimes toward more taking charge and sometimes toward more collaboration., always owning the special power and responsibilities that accompany your professional position.
The arrows at the very center point indicate movement that we can help facilitate. Starting with the arrow originating in the top right quadrant, we can use our power to assist those down power to us to move over to the bottom right quadrant where they are learning to be more empowered and successful in their down power role. In fact, that’s one of the responsibilities of using role power well. Beginning in the bottom right quadrants, when we are in the down power role (and all of us have those roles too), we can, from the empowered right hand quadrant, take skillful action to help those who are up power to us to move over to the upper right quadrant and begin to use their power with more sensitivity.
Stand in your Power, Stay in your Heart.
© Copyright 2011 by Cedar Barstow. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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