There was a time when my life at work was mired in political battles which caught me unawares. Work was a pretty mean place and I could have done with soft and huggy animals. 🙂 I felt really powerless, helpless and anchorless in a lot of situations, repeatedly. Once I got benched on a project – overnight, I went from a star performer to sitting on the bench. I remember being in tears, struggling to understand the reasons for the drastic change and pleaded with my boss to treat me fairly. I was politically naive because of which I did not anticipate what was going on and I felt I wasn’t in control.
In order to remedy the situation, I bought a few books on power because I realised I didn’t understand how power worked; “48 laws of power”, “The Art of War” and “Machiavelli” became an integral part of my library. I tried to gather as much wisdom as I could through those books so that I could be in control, understand what to do to get one up on situations and to be able to wield power in order to have an upper hand.
I thought acquiring and using power was the only way of working. To be politically savvy I had to have the power over someone by means of information, talent, connections or hierarchy. This spilt over in the other parts of my life, too. I began hoarding things that would help me be in a better position of power over another person. Power made me feel invincible. Yes, as Spiderman puts it, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. To me, power over someone was a necessity to survive in this pretty mean world.
I didn’t think there could be another way of working with people power-with instead of power-over. A quote by Marshall Rosenberg helps explain what the difference in the outcome would be when we use power-with instead of power-over. “Power-over leads to punishment and violence. Power-with leads to compassion and understanding, and to learning motivated by reverence for life rather than guilt, shame or anger.”
Power over as I understand it is the use of overt or covert force, threat, rewards to get someone to do something for you. It can come from the “victim stance” or from the stance of position or elevation. The strategies for power over usually come from the place of satisfying only one’s need and ignoring the other person’s needs. It is characterised by explicit or implied use of phrases such as, “You should”, “you must”, “you have to”, “I don’t know what’s happening”, “I am like this only”, “nothing will change, I will never get out of this”, “no one ever helps me. I need to do everything on my own”, “I will never ask you for anything ever again, there is no point”, “If you don’t do this there is no point in this relationship”, “I will talk to you only when you do this”, etc.
Power over can also be in instances where these phrases are not used but respectfully or politely asks someone to do something for you while ignoring the other person’s need. A mother could say to the child, “Can you please do your homework now, or else I won’t buy you the train set you wanted for your birthday?” when the child does not want to do the homework.
The idea is not that one “should not” or “will not” use strategies of power-over. There are instances where power-over could be the choice for many of us, and we’d do it to get some things done. The key is to be aware and to be conscious in our usage of power-over. As there are consequences to using power-over – there’s some form of violence that is created and it is important for us to take full and complete responsibility for the consequences of power-over. Usually, when we use power-over or when it is used on us, it doesn’t leave us with a good feeling even if the manner of speaking used was extremely respectful and polite.
Power-with, on the other hand, is about being aware and valuing our own needs, while also becoming aware of the other person’s needs and valuing them equally. Power-with strategies look for ways to satisfy both peoples’ needs. It respects and values the needs of both people, instead of one person yielding to another. Power-with is a non-violent way of engaging with a person.
The space we come from matters a lot in power-over and power-with. In power-over, we betray ourselves because when we use force or violence (overtly or covertly) to get something done, we are not meeting some need of ours which causes us to be in a vicious cycle of operating from the space of not seeing our needs and using strategies that are violent for both us and the other person involved.
In power-with, the other person is not seen as a person with absolute power or no power. He/ She is instead a person who has certain roles to play and the roles come with responsibility. You’d see the person as somebody who is role-playing and not as the role per se. For example, being a parent comes with a set of responsibilities, but that is not the only role you play in life. You may be a boss, an employee, a mother, a daughter, a spouse, a friend, etc. All these roles have their own set of responsibilities attached to them. If you are able to see yourself as just playing a certain role in a situation, then you aren’t getting attached to the role.
Role playing gives you the grounding you need to see that you as a person have your own needs and you will value them. Once you become aware and accept that you have your own needs, you will also begin to realise that the other person is also role-playing and has his/her own responsibilities. You are able to appreciate the vulnerability of the other person and their needs. Once you are in a space where you are able to value and acknowledge your needs and other’s needs you can work out strategies that meet everyone’s needs. This is called power with – working with self and the other.
The book “Anatomy of Peace” explores this in great detail, and it is worded as a self-betrayal – the space where you do not meet your needs. The book states that there are two states in which you engage with the other person – your heart at peace or your heart at war. Heart at war is essentially the space where you don’t value and meet your needs and the other person too. In his space, you see the other person as an object, as things, not as people. When we operate from that space, it leads to conflict and each person tries to gain power over another person.
A heart at peace is the space where you value, accept and work towards meeting your needs and the other person’s too. In this space, you see the other person as a person and not as an object or thing. Operating from that space results in an environment where there is less conflict, more understanding and deeper relationships. This is the heart of power with another person and the essence of non-violent communication.
This is not about saying that we should always have our hearts at peace. We are human beings, we are vulnerable and we will choose a different response based on the situation. If we are choosing a power with or power over response it is important to be aware and to accept responsibility for our choices.
As Dumbledore says, “It is our choices, not our ability that determines who we are.”
And, we do have the ability to make different choices at any given point of time.