How to Get Things Done When You Feel Powerless: Karen Steinberg Interviewed by Heather Stagl
On March 19, I was a guest on “The Change Agent’s Dilemma: How to influence change without authority,” a blog-talk radio show hosted by Heather Stagl of Enclaria LLC. The show explores the different ways to influence organizational change, from the point of view of someone who is not calling the shots.
The topic of our show was “How to Get Things Done When You Feel Powerless.” You can listen to our discussion here:
Power Is an Exercise of Creativity
We human beings have the capacity to create with whatever is going on around us. And, power is located in our collective capacity to ask anew, and new kinds of questions. It is the vehicle through which we can examine how we see and understand, and create new ways of seeing and being.
What is power, who has it, who doesn’t? This important topic is part of a broad historical, philosophical, political, organizational dialogue. In this context, Heather and I discuss power relative to work (in thirty minutes!)
Here are some highlights of our conversation:
Heather: Is power an individual experience?
Karen: Power exists in relationship with others. How you exercise power is in relation to, and with others, because that is where it is – it is all in the relationship.
People feel, and are powerless by virtue of not having a voice. Either you don’t officially have a voice, or you do officially have a voice but there are ramifications if you use it—that can include structures and policies that make it difficult for people to contribute. Often, the key thing about that is participation. There are all kinds of barriers that get erected in organizations (official or not) where people feel like they can’t exercise their human creative capacity—and that is often what the experience of powerlessness is.
Heather: Are people ACTUALLY powerless or do they just feel powerless?
Karen: Clearly there are many difficult and oppressive situations all over the world where people are rendered powerless. At the same time, we have witnessed over and over again, and in particular in the last year and spring, people in those situations engage in activities in which they exercised their power and changed a whole lot.
Often, people at work feel powerless, and have a whole range of assumptions about what is going on – with their boss, their co-workers and colleagues, and feel certain that they know what is going on, and why. Equally often, people are convinced that whatever it is, is something negative – about them. That it has to do with them.
An person’s or a people’s power in this situation lies in the ability to slow down, take a look at how they see their situation, to unravel the web of assumptions that they have about themselves and about their boss – to question the givens about “what is”.
That is the importance of the practice at the Possibility Practice. It helps people, and teaches people to begin to create some possibility by examining their assumptions. Relationships are the cornerstones of all business [and of life]. It’s precisely in that arena that people can create transformation and growth, and often the place where they are least skilled in operating. Questioning your assumptions – what (you think) you know to be true – is a very powerful thing to do in a world that is very rule-governed, and filled with assumptions—it uses our unique capacities as human beings to create new conversations and reframe what’s happening.
Heather: How do you reframe?
Karen: When you only go with what you know, it keeps everyone stuck and everyone stops growing. You can ask yourself, “how do I know…?” How do you know? That’s a powerful question.
Heather: What can someone do to regain power when they feel like they lost it?
Karen: Give yourself permission and practice asking new questions. It helps to develop the ability to see anew. In any situation, this question HOW DO YOU KNOW? is so very important because it helps people see beyond themselves and their societally-imposed limitations.
How do I know…that my assumption is real or right?
You can spend the whole day being paranoid, but if you practice asking this question, you exercise your power. Talk to another human being that is not you and can see things you can’t see — asking someone else for perspective is a very powerful thing to do.
You can get out of powerless positions by practicing not knowing. It doesn’t mean that you don’t know anything–or don’t have a history of experience. The primary thing that makes us powerless is our commitment to knowing.
Heather: What is the worst thing that can happen if you went to talk to that person?
Karen: I think that is an important question to ask yourself and talk through. What is the worst that can happen? what are the stakes? What can I impact? If I have a conversation where I am somewhat vulnerable and open and introduce humanness — it might have a positive impact. Rarely do people think this is possible.
Heather: You’re a therapist as well. If someone feels powerless to the point of feeling incapacitated, would you recommend the same route?
Karen: Absolutely. Part of what happens when you take something very personally — at the core of that response, is often that people think that everything is all about them. Which doesn’t mean that you’re not involved, but no small part of what causes pain and difficulty–and what I help people try to see is–it’s not all about you.
A big question is: “How do you know it’s about you?” You have no idea. It’s very important that people practice these curious/philosophical questions because it gets us out of this painful way of moving through the world as though it’s all about us. There are a lot of people on the planet – it can’t be all about us!
I think it’s important that people in enormous pain develop those kinds of muscles. The dominant way we’re trained to understand is that we don’t have a muscle to see beyond our limitations. Asking new questions and cultivating curiosity is the way out of feeling incapacitated and powerless.
Heather: If you were to tie a bow. Bottom line?
Karen: Stop paying so much attention to your answers. Ask new questions — if you’re feeling powerless, the way out of it is to engage in a practice of being a more curious person so you can live and grow and participate.
Thank you to Heather Stagl of Enclaria for inviting me to participate in this rich discussion on power. The Possibility Practice Manifesto is a great thing to keep around to remember to slow down, ask new questions, and create more possibility in your life. Download our manifesto.