If You Can't Beat Them, Must You Join Them? Some Thoughts on Power

No matter how many times those who study power tell us that it is a negotiable -- not static -- thing, far too many people allow power to emerge and accumulate around them as though others who obtain it are somehow unstoppable. 


To avoid having to address powerlessness in our lives, many of us reason that power is developed by being ruthless, by being obsequious to those who already possess it, or by stepping on anyone who stands in the way to the top.

There are indeed people who obtain positional power by doing such repulsive things.  On the other hand, a path to incrementally increasing power exists that has nothing to do with becoming someone else or selling an ounce of our souls.

The most prevalent power in our daily lives is exercised, largely without notice, within conversations.  How we manage such conversations influences the amount of power we have over our own lives.  As described by Annenberg School for Communication Professor Klaus Krippendorff, power emerges or dissipates by virtue of how we express ourselves (or fail to do so) when we interact with others.

We create habits of diminishing power with other people.  The bad news is that over time these habits can become intractable.  The good news is that, if you recognize and alter your habits, the power certain others exert over you can be undone.

Consider this brief exchange:

Dylan:  Want to meet early next week?

Jennifer:  Does that work for you?

There’s nothing wrong with this brief conversation unless it represents Jennifer’s regular response to invitations.  Jennifer gives away her power to schedule a meeting at a time that works best for her.  In fact, she asks Dylan what works for him -- even though what works best for him is implied by his question.  He is available early next week.  

Now, Jennifer may be an exceptionally polite person, or she may be accustomed to letting other people, perhaps particularly men, make her decisions for her.  In any case, she literally gives away power and moreover presents herself as willing to follow Dylan’s lead.  Eventually Dylan will assume that he can make all the decisions and an entrenched power imbalance will result.

Let’s extrapolate from this example to conversations that occur all day long.  One way to determine if you give away power, even in seemingly unimportant interactions (with a cumulative effect), is to think in terms of one-up and one-down comments.  If your part of most conversations, especially at work, tends to be one-down (acquiescing), you’re leaking power like a sieve.  By the end of the day, probably you’ve done things you didn’t like, said things you wish you hadn’t said, and generally have let other people set the direction of your life.

This power depletion can be stopped.  Sometimes all it takes to begin altering the power imbalances in your relationships is to replace some of those one-down comments with one-up (more assertive) remarks.  It’s a good first step. 

The next time you’re about to cede the floor to a colleague, give in to someone else’s desires over your own or, as Jennifer did above, give away ownership of a decision because it seems like the polite or feminine thing to do -- assert yourself.  Choose what you would like to do and then express it.  There’s no need to be abrupt (though that certainly beats constantly acquiescing), just mildly assertive.   

As one of my professors told me when he saw that I was giving too much power to the wrong people:  “You can be pushed and pulled through life or you can do some of the pushing and pulling.  It’s your choice.” 

It’s also a choice that you can begin to make as early as today.

Photo:  Sergey Nivers/shutterstock.com

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