What Does It Mean To You? (10-15min)

This exercise moves you towards your own understanding of power by looking at how a variety of other people think about it.

The goal of this exercise is not to find one static definition of what power is. Rather, it is about gathering data on your own gut-response, first-instinct reactions. These reactions can help you better understand your own values and internal working models of power. As you become more conscious of these internal working models, you can start to lean into your own personalised understanding of what you feel power is and you can start to envision how you want to practice it (and for whom, and why, and where).

There’s no way to “get it wrong”. I hope you enjoy this!

(So you know—I’ve deliberately left the names of the folks who said these things off. They’re cited at the bottom of the blog. I think it’s fun and interesting to guess where each quotation came from, and I didn’t want to bias which quotations appeal to you.)

Instructions

Materials: You’ll need a recording device, a notepad and a pen.

  1. Below is a list of 9 quotations about and definitions of power.
  2. Using your recording device, record yourself reading each quotation aloud, and then spend 30-45 seconds verbally free-associating whatever comes to mind for you as you read this. You don’t have to agree or disagree with the quotation, although you’re free to engage that way. You can also say what it reminds you of or what it makes you think and feel. This will produce about 10min of recorded content.
  3. Once you’ve run through all 9 quotes, take a moment to re-read them quietly and reflect on any/all of the questions below. Feel free to jot down your answers on your notepad.
  • Is there a perspective here that excites you? What about it feels energizing?
  • Is there a perspective here that disturbs you? What about it feels concerning?
  • Imagine each of these people in a position of leadership. How do you imagine each of these people’s practices of power vary, based on how they perceive it conceptually?

4. Next, listen to your recording, and make notes of what you hear in your voice as you go through each quotation. Can you hear inspiration? Irritation? Confusion? Fear? Just notice. It’s all valuable information.

5. Finally, if you like, you can spend a few moments journalling in response to any of the writing prompts below that appeal to you…

  • “The quotation about power that felt most familiar was…”
  • “The quotation that felt closest to how I want to personally enact power was…”
  • “The quotation that reminded me the most of abusive uses of power was…”
  • “The strongest emotion I had during this exercise was…”
  • “I would personally define power as…”
Quotations

1. “Power is the drive of everything living to realise itself.”

2. “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.”

3. “Power is the ability to alter the states of others….[It is not] how a person actually acts,… [but rather] the individual’s capacity to affect others.”

4. “Total power is unconditional access; total powerlessness is being unconditionally accessible.”

5. “Power is the ability to afford not to learn.”

6. “[Power is…] Energy and competence.”

7. “We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.”

8. “The ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously.”

9. “[power is]…ability, of choice and engagement.”

Authors of each quotation below…

  1. Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice
  2. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism
  3. Dacher Keltner, The Power Paradox
  4. Marilyn Frye
  5. Karl Deutsch
  6. Nancy Harstock
  7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
  8. Mary Beard, Women and Power
  9. Sarah Hoagland