“One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love….What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have read and re-read these lines countless times. Each time anew I feel a little shock as I reconnect with the immense task of transforming the deeply embedded notions of power and leadership that limit our collective ability to create a world that truly works. When a reader wrote to me “And you are wanting to contribute and make a differences by ‘I continually strive to increase my own power and leadership.’ ??” I was quite confident that he had in mind precisely the “power without love” notion that Martin Luther King talked about. That concept of power still lives in so many of us, even when we work to transform it. And I am no exception.
I have a deep and visceral aversion to coercion of any kind, to imposing anything on anyone. I have known for some time now that this has blocked me from unleashing my full capacity to contribute what I have to the world. This knowledge hasn’t translated into actual changes despite my great wish. What more do I need to learn?
Since time immemorial, people have been going to the desert to receive inspiration and create transformation. In December, I went camping in the desert for 9 days with my nephew. The days were bright and warm, and the nights were long and cold. Night after night I lay inside my sleeping bag and simply thought. A lot.
I learned that while I have immense ease in accessing a clear vision about the world I see as possible, I have not had a goal. Thinking so starkly in the long nights, it became evident to me that I haven’t had enough faith in the possibility of a transition to the clear vision I have, and certainly not in the possibility that I might contribute something of significance to that transition. As a result, I have been giving my attention to everything that comes my way, because everything can conceivably contribute to the vision I have. I came back knowing I want to develop clear and strong goals for my work, and then make my choices much more strategic.
One of the clear obstacles on my way to having the necessary faith has everything to do with deep-seated fears I have about power and connection. Whether I am the one “in power” or someone else is, when there is a clear difference between what I want and what others want or do at any given moment, I am sometimes challenged to the core for fear of losing connection. I am deeply afraid of people being upset with me, and can completely lose my inner sense of choice and effectiveness when challenged in specific ways. This happened to me recently, in September, when I led a 7-day training of trainers which was overall one of the most challenging teaching experiences I’ve had in my 15 years of sharing NVC with the world. One morning, while setting up an intricate activity, one guy, who was particularly unhappy with what I was doing and made this known repeatedly in the preceding days, raised his voice and expressed immense frustration. I literally couldn’t see any useful way of responding, because I didn’t see the possibility of connection. As a result, all I could see was to go along with what he wanted and I couldn’t imagine “fighting” with him or in any way imposing my will on him. I chose to go along, and felt traumatized for days afterwards. It was only recently that I woke up to what I could have said to him, what could have been a response imbued with both power and connection: “I want to make this work for you, and I also want to make it work for me and everyone else. I would really like your support in reaching that goal. Would you take a moment in silence to think of what might work for all of us while I do the same?” Some version of this, to me, is an example of responding powerfully without imposing or giving up. Would it have worked? Depends on what we mean by “work.” It most emphatically would have worked inside of me to maintain my wholeness and integrity. I have no way of knowing whether or not it would have reached his heart and re-established connection. I hope the next time I am challenged I will have this wisdom available to me.
Perhaps I was able to see this more clearly because I had the occasion to experience a similar situation from the other end. This past month, I was part of a training team consisting of 12 people. Two women were leading our pre-training meetings, and I really didn’t like how they were doing it, exactly the position that guy in the UK was in. I suffered immensely, because I so very much wanted the training, which involved 120 people from all over India, to be a real contribution to them, and I was, once again, paralyzed about how to bring about a change without losing connection. This one is even more deeply rooted in me. All my life I’ve connected being powerful and effective with being separate, alone, and unliked. Even in this moment as I am writing these words, this belief is still lodged in me, and is only very slowly dissolving. This fear contracts my heart and limits my options. Again, a truly collaborative option didn’t emerge until later. I covered up my fear with lame jokes about myself; I chose to let go of many things that later turned out to have been potentially significant turning points in our time together, which others also noticed and wanted something different; and when I did express myself, I wasn’t creative about how to convey the care and deep desire to make things work for all of us. We came into the first day of training without having made some critical decisions, and thus less than fully cohesive as a group.
Our team continued to meet every evening after the daily activities of the 5 days of training. The very first evening, when I was eager to have us complete the decisions we still needed to make and learn from what didn’t work that day, the facilitators proposed an activity I simply couldn’t imagine would bring us closer to that goal. I expressed that concern and sat, tight and distressed, waiting to see what would happen. I felt alone, separate, discouraged. Then, to my utter amazement, one of the other people on the team suggested that I facilitate our meetings. What a complex reaction I had! I was mortified and embarrassed, once again predicting separation and pain. I was touched beyond words to have at least one person recognize what I had to offer. Alongside, I also experienced care for the person who made the suggestion, imagining that she was suffering in comparing herself to me. Mostly, I was in awe, especially when everyone agreed.
The true healing for me happened over the rest of the week. Instead of upset and conflict, everyone appreciated my leadership. Instead of loneliness and separation, I didn’t lose connection with anyone. This was the kind of experience that can start to dismantle the thick layer of my ancient beliefs. I saw, in action, that I could act powerfully and remain in connection with people. Seeing this possibility allowed me to come back to the earlier experience and find words I could use to assert my power and remain in open-hearted connection. I have also begun to see ways that I could assert my power when I am not the designated leader, and still maintain connection with those who are leading.
Power with love is the heart of collaboration. Power differences, from either end, make it harder for us to hold on with clarity to the deep knowledge that everyone matters and a solution that works for all is always possible. Having had these experiences and working out my internal reactions to a place of beginning integration, I now see more and more that that collaboration remains a possibility even in moments of great challenge.