Understanding the External Forces of Power
Originally published in Coaching for Transformation
Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means toside with the powerful, not to be neutral. — Paulo Freire
The term “social conditioning” refers to the ways individuals are taught what is acceptable in social situations. For example, we are taught early on in school not to shout out an answer. Through both negative and positive reinforcement, students learn to raise their hands and wait to be called on before speaking in class. This mini-lesson is transferred from the classroom into other aspects of our lives—in situations where we see something happening that we don’t agree with yet hesitate before sharing our thoughts, or wonder if anyone cares what we have to say about a situation that may not be “any of our business.” We may question the level of positional or authoritative power we have to make a difference, even if we are personally empowered to speak up.
All social interactions are riddled with power dynamics. Consider the dynamics at play when a child tells an adult he thinks a decision made for him by the adult is unfair, or a teacher tells a parent her child has been expelled, or a doctor informs a patient she needs surgery. In any of these situations, the dynamics of positional power can include authoritative power due to age, education or class. The power dynamics impact perceptions of who has expertise, what is “right” or “wrong,” whose needs matter and who has choice.
In addition, because books, articles and histories have generally been written by those with positional power and who have the resources, as coaches we may not have been exposed to information about the particular group our clients belong to. We may even not have much knowledge about our own cultural groups. It can be helpful to seek information written by people from the cultural groups we want to learn about—especially about the strengths, achievements and resiliency—so that we don’t burden our clients for information about “their people.”
Our understanding of the role of disabled people in the successes of disability rights movements may help a client connect to their power as a disabled person.
Similar to culture, power structures are sometimes internalized in a person’s choices or interactions and sometimes externalized in systems and processes. Systemic power refers to the structures and systems of order that govern groups of people or society. The courts, insurance companies, taxes, education, banking or voting rights are examples of systemic power. They are all large, non-individualized ways of setting up a system of rules that dictate how others behave. Depending on who you are and your particular circumstances, systemic power structures may protect your rights, or protect the rights of a different group at your expense.
In the article “The Culture of Power,” author Paul Kivel writes:
“If you are a woman and you have ever walked into a men’s meeting, or a person of color and have walked into a white organization, or a child who walked into a principal’s office, or a Jew or Muslim who entered a Christian space, then you know what it is like to walk into a culture of power that is not your own. You may feel insecure, unsafe, disrespected, unseen or marginalized. You know you have to tread carefully.”1
As coaches, understanding the dynamics of the culture of power can be helpful in supporting clients to make meaning of what they feel or need. Because so many power dynamics are felt, rather than articulated, we can often sense something is “off ” before we know exactly what it is. As coaches, we can support people to find language for some of these “sensed” dynamics. Also, for individuals who are part of the culture of power, it can be hard to recognize what that culture is—that there even is a culture (they may see it as a norm)—or how it may feel for someone outside that group. Culture is often likened to gravity. You don’t know it’s there until you jump up and something drags you back down. Even if it’s unconscious, we each have ways in which we use power over others or give our power away. While we may be adept at recognizing when we are excluded, or when we don’t quite fit into a group, it can be hard to realize the ways in which we may exclude others from groups. We may not even experience “a group” but rather “it’s just how it is.”
Questions to Consider
What are ways in which you benefit from a culture of power and privilege?
In what ways have you been hurt by power and privilege?
How does your power and privilege or lack of it impact your coaching relationships?
What will you do to become a conscious ally for your clients?
1 Kivel, Paul (2000). The Culture of Power. Retrieved from http://paulkivel.com/articles/cultureofpower.pdf
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