Why did I choose this tool? I chose this tool not only because it breaks down the different dimensions of power, but also because it focuses on a kind of power that is often ignored and that I am fascinated by and have been studying and observing for a few years now. It is the third kind of power, the power to create meaning. I believe that understanding this kind of power and how it is used in ourselves and others is key to understanding everything else, and the key to empowering ourselves and others.
How does this apply to being a trainer? We are often dealing with power in training, whether in direct or indirect ways. Our training may be about equality, human rights, or democracy. Indirectly, we may face power struggles with participants, or we may observe power struggles between themselves. On the other hand, we may be using our power as a trainer to influence them to think or take action in a certain direction. Knowing what kinds of power exist, and how to manage it ourselves and within the group, can make what we do more conscious, intentional and potentially powerful.
Particularly in the realm of youth work and non-profit work, we can tend to view power in a negative sense. Power, in and of itself, is not necessarily negative. The dictionary gives us two definitions of power:
- the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way.
Ex: “my mother suffered a stroke and lost the power of speech”
2. the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.
Ex: “a political process that offers people power over their own lives”
Having personal power and the ability and capacity to direct our own lives in the direction we want it to go is generally viewed as something positive. It’s the second definition that we might look at as a negative because it influences the lives of others rather then only our own. However not all kinds of power are the same, and to understand this better let’s take a look at the different dimensions that power can have.
Multiple dimensions of power
- Visible power – observable decision making
This kind of power is the most disputed over because of its obvious display and the clout it carries. Think about what it means to be the President of the United States, or to lead a large international organization. Visible power includes formal rules, structures, authorities, institutions, and procedures of decision making. It is the visible “head of power”. Most of the time when a change is needed, the effort is made to change the visible power structure, although this doesn’t always have the desired effects because of all the other power structures that are also in place may be harder to change.
2. Hidden power – setting the political agenda
Hidden power includes those who are influencing policies and practices behind the scenes, and they are often perceived as being far more powerful than those with visible power. Those with hidden power stay out of the public eye and focus on pursuing their own agenda behind the scenes. Because of its nature, it is difficult to discuss hidden power, we rarely have the chance to meet with or openly discuss anything with those who possess it. We can only see the results of their influence and will have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is imagined because there will be no one to verify it one way or another.
Invisible power – shaping meaning
I would say that this dimension is the most powerful of all, and yet it is one that many people don’t even realize exists. Whoever has the power to control meaning has the power to control people from the inside, often without them realizing it. Some desires are deeply embedded into our subconscious mind, such as the desire for love and belonging, the desire to be significant and to matter, the desire to be safe physically and psychologically. If someone can connect these basic human needs to something else, for instance connect the desire to be physically safe to the house they want to sell you, or connect the desire for love and belonging to a certain religious group, then they will be able to manipulate you into doing anything they want, because you will feel that if you don’t you will lose something that matters so much to you on such a deep level. The way that we can prevent anyone from having power over us in this way is to take back the power to shape our own meanings and live life on our own terms, as well as supporting others to do the same.
To see a concrete example, a tireless struggle for more and more money can be the result of a belief that having lots of money is the only way to matter or to be safe. On the flip side, an aversion to money and a tendency towards lack can be the result of a belief that money is inherently evil and to have money, especially lots of it, is something to be avoided. Both of these beliefs, even though opposed to each other, can have a detrimental effect on the life of the one who holds them and limit the possibilities of how they can experience life. To give another example, someone who can give a positive or negative meaning to something like homosexuality, or immigration, can potentially wield more power than those who have official power regarding these matters.
If we find ourselves obsessing for or against something, we can stop and ask ourselves “What does this mean to me? Is this my own meaning or did someone else impose this meaning on me?” This way we can uncover any hidden forces or beliefs that are controlling our behavior and give ourselves back the power to choose our own direction.
In what ways can power be used for good? And in what ways can it be misused?
What notions do I have about the concept of power? Do I want to have more power or am I running away from it?
How much power do I feel I have over my own life and decisions?
What are the meanings I give to different aspects of my life, such as my job, my relationship, my home, my country? Did I choose those meanings myself, or did someone else choose them for me?
In what ways can I increase my sense of power over myself and my environment, in a positive sense?
How to apply it in everyday life:
Power Flower Exercise
“Power Flower” is a tool developed by Canadian social change educators when working with groups to “identify who we are (and who we aren’t) as individuals and as a group in relation to those who wield power in our society.” (Educating for a Change, p. 87)
How The Exercise Works
When planning to do this exercise, you need to duplicate enough copies of the flower (with the segments named – but see below) for the whole group, leaving the petals blank. Make a large replica of the diagram on a sheet of newsprint and tape it on the wall or flipchart. Then follow these steps:
Step 1 – Introduce the purpose and rationale of the power flower, referring to the flower on newsprint.
Step 2 – Working as a group, fill in the outer petals together.
Step 3 – Working individually or in pairs, have participants locate themselves in each inner petal on their own sheet. Count up the number of matching petals, noticing which match. Let each pair compare their results with that of their neighbors, making observations as they go along.
Step 4 – In the large group, ask people to come forward and transfer their inner petal locations onto the inner petals of the large flower. This makes up the composite, communal social identity of your group.: Count how many of your petals are different from the dominant outer petals, What light does this throw on the way you have been treated as a person of privilege or as a marginalized person?
Which of these cannot be changed (for example, where you were born, your sex), and which ones could be changed (e.g. level of education)?
Group social identity: What does the composite picture tell you about who you are as a group? Are you fairly privileged? In what ways are you not privileged? How might this affect, for example, the way you might go about anti-racism work?
Interpersonal relations within your group: Notice who has fewer matching petals and thus less social power, and who has more. How can you turn this knowledge to advantage as the group works together? What does this reveal about possible tensions? Reflect on the unequal weight given some of the categories, for example, race or social-economic class, and thus the need to adjust the “power quotient” wielded by some petals over others.