Power: what does it look like?
Imagine that you find out one of your friends is having a party at their house on Saturday night.
You’ve known this person for years, since primary school. You wouldn’t call them one of your best mates, but they’re in your friendship group. You’ve been to their house and know their brother and sisters.
But you didn’t find out about the party until Friday after school.
You’re sitting with some other friends, waiting for the bus, and they’re wondering how they’ll get home from this person’s party.
Then they ask you how you’ll get home from the party.
And you have to admit that you didn’t know about the party - you hadn’t been invited.
Your friends insist that of course you’re invited, and that the person must have just forgotten to mention it or thought you already knew - it’s no big deal.
Of all the feelings you may have - frustration, anger, hurt - you may also feel powerless.
No matter what you do or how friendly or funny you try to be, you’ve no control over how your friends see you, or the way they treat you.
When you’re powerless, you feel like you don’t have:
- a voice
- the same options that those with power have.
In most of our relationships there’s some form of power dynamic. Typically, it depends on the nature of the relationship.
A formal relationship is one a parent has with a child, or a teacher with a student, or a police officer with a member of the community.
One person, because of the nature of the relationship, has authority over the other. This authority is not unlimited and is restricted to the power given by the rules that apply to that role.
In a personal or intimate relationship, each person should have the same rights, responsibilities and individual freedoms. The relationship should be free and equal where each person’s thoughts and opinions, wants and needs, are given equal weight.
In a personal or intimate relationship, one person does not have formal authority over the other.
Using the Field Model, each decision in a free and equal personal relationship should look like this.
CAN GO TO PARTY WITH FRIENDS?
In the relationships we have with other people, power can take different forms depending on the nature of the relationship.
Social power is the ability of one person to be able to change the beliefs, attitudes or behaviours of another person.
The six social powers
Legitimate power: power that comes from a position or a role held by a person.
- A teacher has the power to manage their class according to the rules and norms of the school.
Social and cultural norms about roles can also influence who holds a position of authority in family and other cultural structures.
Expert power: where expertise or knowledge is the source of power – “knowledge is power”.
- You follow a doctor’s advice on what to do when you’re feeling sick or an IT specialist when your computer isn’t working.
Informational power: when someone has information that others need or want and are controlling it for a purpose.
- Your partner won’t tell you the PIN to your joint bank account because they want to control the finances.
Referent power: when other people want to associate with a person or want to be like the person. The person has power because they possess certain traits that other people want to gain or emulate, or they simply have the ability to attract the admiration of others.
- Your older brother is a star at soccer and popular at school so you take up soccer even though you hate sports because you hope it might make you popular too.
People with referent power are often charismatic with good interpersonal skills. If a person with referent power uses their popularity to get what they want at the expense of others’ rights, that can be abusive.
Reward power: when a person compensates another person for compliance. Reward power is used to gain something of value from others by promising something of value in return.
- Your parents have promised to order your favourite takeaway for dinner on Saturday night but only if you spend the afternoon helping in the garden.
The reward could be a ‘thing’ or something intangible like personal approval. Using the promise of a reward to get a YES to a decision can be disrespectful and, in some situations, could be abusive.
Coercive power: when a person feels threatened with disapproval or rejection for not behaving a certain way or doing a certain thing.
- You agree to send your partner some nudes even though you’re worried they might get shared but if you don’t your partner has threatened to break up with you.
A person using coercive power can punish you for your actions, how you behave, even your attitude and beliefs. Using coercive power (such as in the example above) to get a Yes to a decision is disrespectful and can be abusive in certain situations.
The most frequently used types of social power are reward, referent, and coercive.
You find out that one of your friends is having a party at their house on Saturday night and they’ve forgotten to invite you, again. What can you do to avoid that happening next time?
Using reward-based power:
My mum said she’ll always come pick up me and my friends from a party, anywhere anytime.
Using referent-based power:
My older brother with his own car will come pick up me and three friends.
Using coercive-based power:
My older brother with his own car will come pick me up but no-one else, unless I say its ok.