By Dr. Cedar Barstow
When there is a role power difference, one person is in an up-power role and the other person is in a down-power role. Up and down is simply directional. It does not indicate better or worse. But up and down does indicate different roles, responsibilities and vulnerabilities.
Both partners in the power differential relationship need to understand and own their roles. The quality of relationship, creativity, collaboration and effectiveness that results when both up- and down-power parties say “yes” to these roles is what I call the alchemy of yes. Imagine a group of people standing in two circles with the members of the inner circle facing the members of the outer circle. Those in the inner circle are in an up-power role while those in the outer circle are in a down-power role. In my training, I invite those in the inner circle to think about the ways they say a “half-yes” to their role power. There are many reasons, for example, “I’m exhausted.” “I don’t have enough confidence.” “I don’t like this role.” “I didn’t choose it.” “I’m afraid of causing harm.” “I want everyone to like me.” Then they show their “half-yes” in their body and posture. The outer circle in down-power roles experience their responses to their up-power partners. Responses are remarkably dramatic: “I want to protect myself.” “I don’t want to engage.” “I want to walk away.” “My space feels so small.” “I don’t have confidence that I will get what I need.” “I want to take care of her.” Next the up-power people find their “yes” to their role power and embody this “yes.” There are striking responses of interest, safety, confidence, spaciousness, willingness and good feeling about the relationship.
We then shift to the outer circle and the down-power people name and embody their “half-yes” to their role. “I don’t trust anyone in authority.” “I don’t want to give up control.” “I’m tired.” “I don’t want to have to do anything. I just want to be taken care of.” “I’m afraid.” “Just like always before, this just isn’t going to work.” “I could be hurt here. Better be very cautious.” “I want and deserve to be the leader here.” Up-power participants noticed their responses to their half-yes clients or employees. “Looks like really hard work to me.” “They look so scared underneath the outer shell.” “I’m going to have to earn their trust by demonstrating using my power well.” One participant noticed that in her actual job, this is the way most of her clients begin in therapy. In fact, there is wisdom in down-power caution. The down-power role is a high-risk role that requires trust in the good ethics of the up-power person. This trust needs to be earned by demonstrations of personal integrity, and role sensitivity and skill. A down-power participant noted that the more her up-power partner stayed in her “yes,” the more he felt better about being in down-power. When the down-power folks found their “yes” to their role, they felt positive, engaged, hopeful, safe and trusting. And when both circles were owning and saying yes to their roles, the relationships felt collaborative and healthy.
Two-sided “yes” relationships are what we strive for and are the most productive ones. Collaborative and healthy relationships are possible and productive within structures that embody a role power difference. Collaboration doesn’t require banishing the power differential or making hierarchy the enemy. Hakomi Trainer, Morgan Holford, describes the power differential as “linear and round at the same time: right use of hierarchy as a vertical linear line and right use of relationship as a circular surround.”
The Alchemy of Yes also reflects the 150% principle: the person in the up-power role still has much greater responsibility for the health of the relationship. In fact, a large part of the up-power role involves earning the trust of the person in the down-power role and helping him or her learn how to make best use of their role.
Here’s a checklist of a few dynamics to be conscious of when using your power.
Leader/Helping Professional Power Considerations
_____1. Sometimes I don’t take ownership of my power role.
_____2. Sometimes I have blurred or poor role boundaries and limits.
_____3. Sometimes I am arrogant or over-use my role power.
_____4. Sometimes I have great content, but poor timing.
_____5. Sometimes I have great timing, but poor content.
_____6. Sometimes I’m unwilling to be direct or take a stand.
_____7. Sometimes I’m not in good contact with my client or group.
_____8. Sometimes I try to use or change rules to avoid working with a relationship.
_____9. Sometimes I am too nice or too empathic.
_____10. Sometimes I don’t honor or work with differences well.
_____1. Sometimes I hide under the leader.
_____2. Sometimes I engage in too much questioning and doubting.
_____3. Sometimes I undermine the leader.
_____4. Sometimes I compete with the leader.
_____5. Sometimes I pretend to go along.
_____6. Sometimes I complain without suggesting a change.
_____7. Sometimes I am half-present and half-hearted.
_____8. Sometimes I don’t follow through with my agreements.
_____9. Sometimes I’m not emotionally available.
_____10. Sometimes I am not direct with my responses.
To increase your skillfulness, pick one or several of these considerations to shift. Consciousness, empathy, and skillfulness are needed in both power differential roles.