Manage Power Dynamics with Communication
It is easy to be blind to power dynamics because of our democratic-society culture. We want to believe that all people are equal, but that delusion puts us at a disadvantage in being able to actively manage power dynamics.
Power in a macro sense is our ability to make a difference in the world, and in a micro sense power is our ability to influence those immediately in our presence. All relationships, all human interactions, inherently have a power dynamic. Awareness of that dynamic gives us the advantage of intentionally managing it. We may not be able to instantly change positional power, but we can change referential or earned power with the people in our presence through communication. We can use both verbal and nonverbal communication to both give and take power.
In sharing this advice, I am assuming that your intentions are to use power for good, to enhance the lives of others, and to lead compassionately.
Giving Power through Communication
To ‘empower’ someone is to shift some of the power in any given dynamic to another person in that dynamic. There are many times when we want to give power to others for the betterment of teams, organizations, and even for ourselves. We may want to give others power when delivering constructive criticism on a team, seeking multiple solutions for issues in an organization, or working to gain a broader perspective personally. For example, in a group meeting where one person has less advantage – perhaps because of race or gender – another person with greater advantage can give that person power by mentioning their contribution to a successful project or directly asking for their input. These verbal means to give power include kind words, acknowledgement of difficulties, compliments, and asking open-ended questions.
We also give power through nonverbal communication, helping others feel heard. Nonverbal means to give power include:
Taking Power through Communication
While the thought of taking power may initially seem selfish, there are many benevolent reasons to take power in an interaction. When we see situations as unjust for ourselves or others, when important information is being ignored, or when respect is not being given, that is the time to take power. In some organizations and some situations, the power dynamic needs to shift in our favor so that we can benefit others and lead compassionately. We can verbally take power by raising our voice, asking for a turn to speak, or interrupting others. Interrupting with short phrases, such as ‘time out’ or ‘hold up’, is a way to grab attention so our voices can be heard.
Verbally taking power is often perceived as confrontational, so nonverbal means may be more effective in some situations. Nonverbal ways to take power are:
It might feel strange to intentionally give and take power as described above, because we’ve been enculturated to believe that we naturally share power evenly. But, if we find ourselves in situations where the outcomes are not what we wish, it will benefit us to learn and use power-shifting communication skills. The most important takeaway is to be aware of power dynamics. Once aware of the dynamics, we may be able to trust our natural instincts to adjust the power balance using the strategies described above.