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November 29, 2012

Robert Chambers on the Fifth Power (the power to empower)

November 29, 2012
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Some thoughts from Robert Chambers, from whose wonderful new book I recently posted several excerpts.CLTS workshop in Mombasa_P Bongartz

People tease me for being pentaphiliac.  They notice that I love fives of a thing.  Well, it’s true.  If there are six, I boil them down to five.  If there are only four I rack my brains to find a fifth.   So the four types of power have been a challenge:

Power over      needing no explanation

Power to          agency, meaning being able to decide to do something and then do it

Power with      collective power when people come together

Power within   self-confidence or something like that

There had to be a fifth.  Power to Empower, linking some of these? Can people be empowered to gain power within and power with which then combine as new power to?

In workshops I have invited participants to put some flesh on this power to empower.  They brainstorm lists of verbs to complete the sentence

As an ‘upper’, to empower ‘lowers’ you can  ………..

Uppers includes people who are dominant or powerful in a situation or relationship , with power over and power to, and lowers means people who are subordinate and relatively powerless in a situation or relationship.  There are innumerable upper-lower pairs (parent-child, teacher student, …..).  So what can uppers do to empower lowers?   You may want to make you own list.

Some verbs come up again and again- listen, respect, trust, inspire, coach, mentor, give responsibilities…

Some are behaviours from the PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) tradition

  • Sit down, listen, learn
  • Facilitate  (fundamental to good management behaviour, to transforming relationships…?)
  • Hand over the stick (or pointer, baton, marker pen, chalk, powerpoint clicker, microphone…even megaphone  -yes really, with large groups….)  (Duncan wrote to me that he still feels funny inside when he does this – a mixture of excitement and reluctance! I know the feeling.  It is also often relaxing as you hand over responsibility).
  • Ask them!  – as an upper, ask lowers what they know, their priorities, their ideas, advice and views.   Often they come up with ideas new to the upper.  Power relations are reversed or levelled.  Uppers discover that ‘They Can Do It’ – that lowers have unsuspected capabilities.
  • Shut up!  The empowering power of silence – surprisingly hard to practice – ‘suffering the silence’ but worth a try

unity is strength cartoonOther less obvious ones don’t always come up:

  • Make simple empowering rules.  Take codes of conduct for a workshop, for instance.  These can give voice to those who hold back and restrain and limit the big talkers.   With ‘Senior Silence’ no senior person or upper is to speak.  Lowers come into their own and uppers are sometimes amazed at what they know and say.

A neatly self-regulating  system comes from Nepal.  Every time a person speaks a sweet is put in their mouth.  Sucking only – no high-speed crunching allowed.   The Director of an NGO was so frustrated that he crunched, and became known as ‘our sweet-crunching friend’.

  • Convene  –  invite people to come together and share knowledge and ideas, co-generate knowledge and gain solidarity.  This happens again and again with women’s groups, leading to Power To and action
  • Broker             act as mediator, intermediary, conciliator…
  • Ask empowering questions.

Here’s an example. The Country Director of an INGO on arrival sent a message to all 150 or so of her staff.  She asked them what they would like her NOT to do.  Wow!  It paid off, and how.  She received guidance from over a hundred responses.  And now that INGO has for two successive years received the award for the best managed organisation in the whole country, beating all competition in the private sector!

Is there a synergy here?  Can these behaviours by uppers balance or reverse power relations, generating a synergy of power with, power within and power to?

So can power to empower be a win-win?  Used well, can it liberate uppers, reducing the stresses of responsibility and control?  And can it lead to better ideas, better performance, better management, a better life?

Pie in the sky?  Or realism?  What is your experience?  What do you think?

3 comments

  1. I like this contribution, though I do not think that the question, or the suggestions, are in any way new. It is the most obvious of all questions – I hope other readers will add strategies. Loved the sweet sucking one! I remember how Brian Goodwin at Schumacher College in Devon used to say ‘Participation is in the Pause’. He meant that everyone should take time to listen, to be still, to think, to reflect. It is not only about filling silence with sound, but about everyone taking time out.

    1. No-one beats the Quakers on that one. You finish giving a rousing speech to a Quaker meeting and no-one claps. They all sit in silence and reflect on what you have just said. Extremely disturbing and effective!

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