Early in my training to work in conflict resolution, I realized that most conflicts I encountered in my work were not about beliefs, emotions or personalities, but about power. That alone was a significant realization, however in writing my first book about negotiating at an uneven table, the insight blossomed further. Definitions of power were the catalyst.
The first noteworthy aspect of this is that the word power is used in a variety of disciplines generating a variety of definitions and meanings: physics, sports, math, sociology, etc. This introduces a degree of blurred meaning at the outset. Definitions of power not linked to some specific universe of thought, however, yield more interesting information.
Merriam-Webster and Oxford both provide the first meaning of power: ability to act or create an effect; the ability to do something as a faculty or quality. Essentially this is self-agency. The second meaning of power introduces contrasting information: possession of control, authority, or influence over others; the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. Essentially this is dominance. And here the insight explodes: the second meaning of power, when exercised by a person, can contain, compromise, even eliminate the first meaning for those being controlled. Essentially, though the first meaning is meant to be primary, it is not, since the primacy of the second meaning can result in the loss of self-agency for others.
What became clear to me is that I live in a country that primarily pursues and manifests the second meaning while giving lip-service to the first. We negotiate dominance, not self-agency. We want control, not simple creation of effects. As becomes apparent, if the coin of the realm is control and dominance, then power conflicts are about who gets to control things and who gets to dominate. Self-agency may be a lovely idea, even admired and applauded, however the real driver of our social selves in the US is dominance and control. As a result, many persons who are dominated by others believe this is the only definition of power, and feel they have no power, abdicating their self-agency.
Once you see this distinction, it becomes useful to see what definition people are using when they use the word “power”. If you keep track of this, you will quickly notice how obsessed we are about dominance power and how self-agency is rendered silent or invisible, particularly when dominant forces confine the self-agency of others. When Lord Acton made his famous quote about power, he seems to be referring to dominance power: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”
Yet we as a nation are enchanted with dominance power. For those who have achieved their goal of dominance, threats to that dominance can evoke intense and frantic responses. These responses are best understood as frenetic fear. In the US, all of this frenetic fear has become enmeshed in the debate over changing our federal laws about guns. Guns are a powerful symbol of dominance power. Indeed, their symbolic function often seems to have replaced their stated function. Killing animals for entertainment and relaxation is not really a wide-spread national past-time.
Among the many responses I had to the killings in Uvalde and my deep concurrence with the impassioned plea of Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors before a playoff game, I returned to my reflections on power over the years. Thoughts and prayers, gun control and mental health services will not ensure we grapple with our fetishistic attachment to dominance. I don’t even think most people see it as quite disturbing or undesirable. We think it makes our country reat. We think we should dominate the world!
Community, collaboration, cooperation, caring, compassion: these fade in the shadows of the shrill insistence on dominance. Nonetheless, I choose them. I live in the space of the first and primary definition of power, and deliberately insist that my powerful self-agency is not yours to violate or damage. Dominance power, to me, seems primitive, unevolved and often destructive. I consciously lay claim to my self-agency to continue to encourage a look at power as dominance and ask the obvious question: how is this working for us?
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”