Acquired Spontaneity

Thoughts and practices for personal and social transformation

Myths of Power-With: No 5 – Everyone’s Needs Are Equal

When to prioritize some people's needs more than others'

One of the core principles that shows up in just about everything I write is the commitment to holding everyone’s needs with care. This, with a specific focus on holding with care everyone’s needs for meaningful choice, is the core guideline I use for understanding how to apply the power I have. For as long as those [in my circle or organization, ed.] with less power than me have access to choice, I am satisfied with my use of power.

That said, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the addition of the word “equal,” which changes the principle to “holding everyone’s needs with equal care.” Aside from the philosophical uncertainty about how equality of care can even be measured, I don’t see it as either possible or even desirable in all situations to hold all of everyone’s needs equally. In fact, I believe that the insistence on equality of this kind can compromise both the effectiveness and integrity of movements and groups.

This is why I have replaced the word “equal” or “equally” with “full” or “fully.” I can say, with far greater ease, that I can hold everyone’s needs with full care even when I don’t hold them with equal care.

As I see it, power-with means finding the path that, relative to the purpose at hand, supports maximal empowerment and participation on the part of all. That doesn’t necessarily mean equality, though often it would. Here are two concrete examples of when I see a difference.

Compensating for Lack of Power

When I facilitate groups, I make a point of holding in my awareness the power relations present within the group. This can be formal power relations, as in an organizational power hierarchy, or social-structural power differences as in, for example, racial groups. Whether in a teaching context, when facilitating a business meeting, and even in a two-person mediation, if my commitment is to holding everyone with full care and to maximize choice and participation, then I will in some ways prioritize the needs of the person with less power even while holding those with more power, also, with full care.

Sometimes this means inviting someone to speak before another even if they raised their hand after, because of knowing that having less access to power makes it harder to participate. Sometimes it means lingering longer with some people while keeping an eye out for others to make sure it’s not at cost to them. Sometimes it’s a willingness to have some people feel some discomfort in order to find a place at the table for those who previously didn’t get included.

The form may be different and adapted to the context. The principle is clear to me: I use my own power as a facilitator to support people with less power to have more choice and voice than they might otherwise. Not more than others; just more than they and the circumstances would allow them without my intervention.

In the context of race relations, for example, this is one small thing that I can do, as a person with access to white privilege, to destabilize the invisibility of power differences in a group, to actually increase the chances that everyone’s needs are held with care.

The Needs of People in Support Roles

A few years ago I had a very difficult interaction with an assistant trainer. The details are now gone from my memory and are not so important. What stayed with me was that the person in question wanted me to change something in my plan for teaching because it didn’t totally make sense to her. Being generally open to feedback and loving thinking collaboratively, I invited her to tell me her concerns or objections. After hearing them, I knew I still wanted to keep my plan without change, and I asked her to set aside her disagreement so that I could complete the agenda of a meeting and be prepared for the next session. At that moment, she expressed intense dismay, and wondered out loud how my action squared with the commitment to hold everyone’s needs equally. Later, she said that she saw my request of her as an example of power-over.

From my perspective, something completely different was going on, which I saw as lack of alignment between us about what it means to be in a support role. As I see it, when I enter a support role, I am willingly accepting that some of my needs will not be a priority as decisions are made. Supporting someone else means going along with their vision and direction, offering my perspective when it seems relevant, and accepting the other person’s choice about where to go even if it wouldn’t be my own. The most intense example of being in a support role that I have is supporting my sister’s journey with cancer. It’s always understood that she is the one who makes the final decision about treatment options even though she values and seeks my opinion. I still experience complete collaboration even in moments when her choice is not what I would do in her shoes. It wouldn’t occur to me to ask her to keep engaging with me until one of us shifts.

As another example, Dave, who edits most everything I write, makes a clear distinction between helping me say what I am saying more clearly and trying to get me to agree to say something different from what I am saying. The former is the kind of collaboration of a support person; the latter the collaboration of a co-author.

Precisely because of this deep understanding that I have about what it means to be in a support role, I know that it wouldn’t be easy for me to be a support person for someone (though it’s super easy for me, joyful and enriching, to do with my sister). I have opinions about everything, usually strong, and I don’t have the most ease carrying out something that is not of my own choosing.

That said, collaborating with a person in a support role does not confer the license to ask the person to do anything. I do hold immense care for and hold with reverence the well-being of people who work to support my vision, whether they are paid staff, volunteers, or friends. Primarily, this means that I am always willing for the person to say “no” to a request of mine. The balance is delicate – if the “no” is frequent, this person may not be a fit to work with me; still, in each instance of asking, I want to freshly be open to the “no.”

Sadly, my own willingness to hear “no” doesn’t necessarily translate into the other person knowing that they are free to say “no.” I still find myself, with regularity, compensating for the other person’s lack of power by questioning a “yes” that may not sound fully on board, or by asking more lightly to make it easier to say “no.” It’s not always been successful. In part, this is because my way of expressing myself is passionate and forceful, which some people find challenging, especially those who generally find it hard to say “no” to someone in a position of power. This is work in progress.

In this as in the previous example, I am looking at the question of power-with from the perspective of the choices made by the person with access to power. When I am in a position of power, I want to be the one to do the work of using my power with the people with less power, the more so the less willingly they are there. That is, in a nutshell, the challenge of shifting how power is used in the world.

Click here to join us to discuss Myths of Power-With #5 on a conference call: Tuesday July 16, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. This week Miki is back from Thailand and will lead the discussion.

Miki Kashtan, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and serves as its lead facilitator and trainer.

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