I’m desperately upset about the president-elect of the United States, and the children in Aleppo, and our fragile planet, and so much else. I wake up in the night, scared or angry or hurting, and I can’t get back to sleep. I get obsessed with hating him for so many things, not the least of which is his abhorrent use of power.
So the other night, in the middle of the night, I got to thinking about my power—and how I use it. And then I did some inner work—a simple thought experiment that I’ll share with you here.
Take a moment to think about someone who doesn’t like you. Mean, I know. Very unpleasant. But bear with me, if you will. I hope you’ll learn something.
Choose a work colleague, a friend (or an estranged one), a family member or someone in your community—and the issue should be something fairly substantial. Choose someone who has made trouble for you—who has criticized you directly, gossiped about you to others or someone from whom you’ve received ongoing stink eye.
Ok. Got someone?
If the person has either criticized you directly or gossiped to others, what did they say? What was their complaint about you? If they have not said anything to you or to others, try to imagine into their experience, even if you have no idea what they have against you. Look at yourself and your behavior through their eyes and from their point of view. Look specifically at how you have used your power in that relationship. Consider the context of the relationship and check if you have a higher position than they do, even if it’s not obvious. Consider your social powers (gender, class, race, sexual orientation, physical or intellectual abilities, etc) as well as your personal (psychological and spiritual) powers.
Think about both your words and your body language. Try to identify something you have said or done, or a way you have behaved that has been hurtful or made them feel less than. How have you communicated your power?
Not so easy.
But in almost all cases, the way in which power gets communicated, makes or breaks the overall atmosphere and feeling tone in a relationship, family, workplace or community.
A student comes to mind from years ago. For a while, she had attended my supervision sessions, and then she started to avoid me. I could chalk up her evasion to our differences in style—I’m a pushy, loud-mouthed, New Yorker; she is reserved and from an introverted culture—but I’m fairly certain we were able to appreciate those differences. No, that wasn’t it. But there’s something about my intensity. When I look at myself through her eyes, I can see it in my facial expression. Hear it in my slightly critical tone, between the lines of my words. When I step into her shoes, when I truly “become her“, I sense her unease, a slight feeling of not being good enough.
I hate to admit that she (and others) has been hurt by my attitude. I’ve heard the gossip: She’s smart and incredibly experienced… but a bit scary. She can be overly critical. Years ago I got a review that said this: I felt like I would never be able to learn—I’d never get it. That one hit hard. There’s nothing worse for a teacher than to leave a student with the feeling that they are incapable of learning.
My insight: I need to hold myself to a higher standard and coach myself to be more sensitive and user friendly with anyone who entrusts me with the sacred task of teaching them. And I need to hold myself to task on various key projects—including my personal quest to develop a warm and friendly inner atmosphere.
So when I’m not consuming news, signing petitions or screaming at one of my screens, when I’m not stuck in fear or fury, I’ll focus on my power—and how I can use it best.
And when I‘m mired in hating the president-elect, I can remember this.
The above thought experiment, in steps:
- Think of someone who is mad at you, who dislikes you or makes trouble for you.
- How have you communicated your power to that person? What are the verbal or non-verbal messages you send?
- Identify one of your communication signals that may have had a hurtful impact and made the other feel put down. Amplify the signal. Dream into it. Discover its message.
- What is the signal trying to say… to the other?
- Try to imagine bringing in your message more directly, or in a more helpful way?
- Now ask yourself: What is the message trying to say… to yourself?
Jan Dworkin, PhD. Facilitator, Coach, Therapist, Multi-cultural educator, Awareness Cultivator, Art Dabbler. If you like my blog, please share or subscribe here.