In the wake of #metoo, I started to feel compelled to more deeply investigate questions of how we might begin to learn a healthier form of power. I’m a transformational educator, which means that my work consists of creating conditions that allow people to play with new possibilities and form new practices. These days, I work primarily in the field of gender-based violence prevention—so #metoo has been frontline in virtually every conversation I’ve had for the past year, and its themes have been frontline in the past decade of my work.

Culturally, after October of 2017, I began to sense a cracking open, tectonic shifts in the culture. Important stories and conversations were coming to the surface that had been suppressed for a very long time; there was a great deal of emotional charge, and I wanted to help my clients use that charge and leverage this cultural moment as effectively as possible. So I started to research, to understand everything I could about what power is and how it can be healthily used.

During my research, I came across the work of Dacher Keltner, a researcher and psychology professor at Berkeley. Since the 90s, Keltner has been studying social interactions and the biological/evolutionary basis for emotions like love, fear, awe and compassion. A key piece of his work has been the development of a theory of power; in 2016, he published a book called The Power Paradox that pulls together his many years of research and work in this area.

Keltner’s work about power is fascinating and The Power Paradox is an excellent book—highly recommended. In The Power Paradox, he identifies four social practices that are visible across cultures that appear to bring out the good in people and groups, and build strong social collectivity. These practices form the basis for what he calls ‘enduring social power’–power that is not grabbed by force, but is given by a group. I often think of this as pro-social power, because it builds cohesion and emphasizes social responsibility.

Dacher’s four practices for enduring social power are:

  • Empathizing;
  • Giving;
  • Expressing gratitude; and
  • Telling stories.

Seen psychologically, these are bonding behaviours. They build trust and they demonstrate reciprocity. Keltner’s research shows that, when people do these things regularly and genuinely, they become socially powerful and often become leaders in their communities. Sounds great, no?

The big paradox in Keltner’s work–and the paradox most of us see in our lives–is this: if the main practices that ‘elect’ leaders are so positive and pro-social, how is it that we so often end up with corrupt and abusive leaders in power?

His answer is that we are biologically vulnerable to the experience of power. Power, he explains, is a chemical surge. It’s a dopamine and serotonin cocktail, and it feels like high levels of excitement, inspiration, joy, exuberance and euphoria. These emotions enable us to take purposeful action and give us sharp skills of attunement and creativity–it’s a rush, and it feels great. However, this Rush also makes us less aware of risks, more impulsive and potentially more coercive or manipulative. This chemical cascade narrows our focus away from others. We start to think of ourselves as invincible and exceptional. We feel less empathy for other people. We become disrespectful and we stop listening to other people. In short, we start acting like we’re on some sort of extended terrible coke binge. For years. 

I think of this as the Slow Slide into Acting A Fool, and we are all vulnerable to it. Keltner calls it the Power Paradox. Another brilliant writer, adrienne mares brown, calls it the phenomenon of rock star leaders, and she sums up the pattern thus: people stop seeing you, they project onto you, you don’t get to make mistakes and then you make a big mistake. It’s a pattern you can see at work all over our culture.

So what are we to do with the Power Paradox? It’s a tendency to which we all are somewhat vulnerable. But Keltner has helpfully distilled his research into a five-fold-path on how we can deal with the Power Paradox. According to him, if you want to ward off the Power Paradox, these are your antidote practices:

  • Be aware of the feeling of power;
  • Practice humility;
  • Stay focused on other people and give;
  • Practice respect; and
  • Work for equity.

As a transformative educator, my role is to work creatively with research like this by distilling it into practical and experiential learning opportunities. As I was researching power and its enactments, my mind kept going again and again to the same questions: how do we operationalise this knowledge? how do we make it practical, applied, tangible, effective? how do we build skills to do this better? This blog is part of this process. The exercises and articles I share are all, broadly, organized around these questions.

So, for example, take Keltner’s first suggestion: learning to be aware of the feeling of power.

A transformative learning process associated with this would look something like this:

  • Skills in the body: practice being able to feel and recognize The Rush,
  • Skills for the mind/words: practice naming The Rush without shame,
  • Skills for the mind: understand intellectually what it is,
  • Skills for the body/heart: enjoying The Rush, because it feels real nice, and then
  • Skills in behaviour: practice using a variety of tools to take The Rush out of the driver’s seat, because it leads you to make poor choices.

As you’ll notice, this is an emotional and embodied learning process, as well as a cognitive one. It’s about developing skills to work effectively with the experience of power, not the concept of power. In my next blog post, I’ll be sharing Sensations of Power, a visualisation/memory exercise that works with building the first area of skills–feeling, recognizing and naming the experience of power. (You can access Sensations of Power here.)

If you’re in Toronto during November 2018 and interested in this work, I will be working with the very lovely and talented bk chan to pilot some in-depth material that works on putting Keltner’s theories (and the work of several other smart folks) into practice. I hope you’ll join us–you can see the information here–because this work is much more fun in person. But if you’re not, and this is important to you, I commend you for that and I want you to know that you can still start to do this important work on your own. If you wish to go further, check out the exercises located elsewhere on this blog.

Thank you for reading, I hope this has been useful to you and thank you for your engagement with this topic. #thisishowwemakeitbetter

(Check out Dacher Keltner and adrienne maree brown on these questions here and here. Thank you to both!)