Power! What a complex concept, especially in groups that strive for egalitarianism. Here is a story of an activity I created as a playful way to explore 12 types of power in a group setting.
The group was abuzz with concerns, both interpersonal and structural, repeatedly voicing the need to address “power issues.” What struck me was the many different types of situations being named—each representing a distinct aspect of power. Before diving into the intricacies of our interpersonal dynamics, it became evident that we needed a shared understanding of what we meant by “power.”
I remembered this incredible Field Guide to Social Power that a few brilliant friends created (thank you Stella Maris, rain crowe, Kavana Tree Bressen and more!). Using this guide as a foundation, I initiated a conversation series. Here’s how it unfolded:
1. Introducing the Field Guide
I emailed everyone the Field Guide, with the caveat that it might not be perfect but could serve as a catalyst for our discussions.
2. Reflecting on 12 Forms of Power
I encouraged everyone to consider each form of power, guided by a set of questions:
- What does this form of power entail?
- When have you encountered this form of power?
- How did it feel when you experienced it?
- What were the outcomes or implications?
- Were you aware of this power at the time?
- Could a different type of power have been more suitable?
- Do you have additional questions to deepen our understanding?
3. The First Conversation
We met in person, and I set the stage by asking each person to share a one-word intention of something that helps you learn or be open to new insights. The answers were brilliant and set us up for a learning space — not a defensive space.
I then pointed out the 12 stations that I had set up – each with one form of power printed out to review. People then had 6-7 minutes at 4 of the stations – 2 that they chose from a hat and 2 of their choice, though I encouraged them to go to stations that were less familiar or more challenging.
At the station they had the chance to refine their reflections from the questions I previously posed.
4. Reflecting in Pairs
After the rounds, participants paired up to debrief their experiences, sharing insights and choosing a form of power they found compelling to discuss with the larger group.
5. Sharing and Generating Questions
In the larger group, we delved into discussion, listening to one person share a juicy story or insightful analysis for each form of power. I then asked the group to generate thought-provoking questions for our future meetings.
The questions that emerged were profound, such as:
- How can we support healthy personal power that is not experienced as power over?
- What are effective ways to leverage the power of affiliation without excluding others or undermining solidarity?
- How do we honor rank and earned privilege in an egalitarian setting?
- What lessons can indigenous cultures offer regarding earned influence?
- When is resistance constructive in a community setting?
- How do we address abdications of power or victim positions within an imbalanced power context?
- How do we discern the line between calling attention to oppression versus giving away power?
- What if we don’t agree on subcontext — when neither are right or wrong, just different? When is shared subcontext necessary for cultural cohesion?
7. Preparing for the Next Phase
To prepare for the next conversation, we left the 12 forms of power papers displayed in a common area for people to add more questions over the next week or two before our second conversation. I also asked everyone to reflect on how these forms of power manifest in our community — the idea being that we were now more ready to apply our newly shared foundation to current concerns.
Analysis and Insights:
This activity can help groups to:
- Build connection through shared experience and storytelling.
- Develop an understanding of complexities of power to approach current concerns and dynamics in a more nuanced and healthier way.
- Explore how power can be used well or badly depending on the context.
Through hearing the diversity of our experiences, we could bring new light to our web of interpretations and experiences surrounding power dynamics. This helped us realize that there is no definitive right or wrong way, but rather, that it was our responsibility as a community to navigate and connect according to the unique context of each situation.
We began this conversation in a highly charged environment. I think there is magic in having people simply walk to different stations, and bring in stories from outside our group to normalize the experiences that there is so much more to learn about and with each other. This activity helped reconnect us and shift the energy from struggle against each other to shared struggle with the complexity of community. Now we can have much more effective conversations about our specific community concerns.