“Power With” or “Power Over”: Which is the Way Forward?

“Power With” or “Power Over”: Which is the Way Forward?

Recently, I was in an interactive workshop of female leaders, and a number of women voiced that they had negative feelings around the word “power”. I must confess, that was my belief for a number of years, based on my experience with leaders and leadership. However, recently I have changed my perspective around power after being energized and impressed at the way so many of the female leaders around the world responded to the pandemic. They were confident, decisive, and worked collaboratively with their teams and even consulted female leaders in other countries regarding their policies, practices and lessons learned.

The time has come for us to change our mindsets from “power over” to “power with”. Examples of “power with” include how Jacinda Ardern during the pandemic broadcast nationally to her fellow New Zealanders in her sweatshirt coming from a place of empathy and understanding, rather than command and control. How scientists from around the world banded together to find a vaccine for COVID-19 in record time, also demonstrated “power with”.

When you think of “power with”, what images does it conjure up? What does it mean to you? I see men and women standing together in a circle holding hands. I see community. To me it means admitting I don’t have all the answers and working together with others to solve complex issues and generate creative solutions. When I think of “power over” I think of a man on his own at the top of a hierarchy, making the decisions on his own from a place of ego, without seeing the need to consult with and understand various perspectives.

“Power over” is when one person or group unilaterally, usually through their political and/or financial influence, imposes their views and ways of working on others for their own gain, rather than trying to understand others and see the world through a different lens. They are threatened by new ideas and perspectives and often want to maintain the status quo that keeps them in power. They also encourage and support competition over collaboration.

The days of the Lone Wolf are over. Complex issues such climate change and systemic racism require leaders from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, sectors and countries to solve them.

I believe that “power with”, which involves collaboration, is the way forward.

In order to collaborate it is important to:

  • Believe that more than one “head” is better than one; that multiple perspectives around an issue lead to more creative and sustainable solutions
  • Trust those you are collaborating with
  • Be clear on your role and that of others in the process
  • Have values aligned with those you are collaborating with
  • Be open to new ways of understanding and looking at a problem
  • Come from a place of service; of making a positive difference in the world.

What does power look and feel like for you? I welcome your thoughts and comments below on “power over” and “power with”.

The Value of a Professional Facilitator: Why Would You Hire One?

The Value of a Professional Facilitator: Why Would You Hire One?

Creating a new project? Building a new partnership? Embarking on a strategic planning process? Building collaboration between multiple stakeholders or between one or more teams in an organization? All of these scenarios benefit from the skills of an experienced and skilled facilitator.

What is a professional facilitator?

A professional facilitator is someone who has been trained by a recognized organization and/or academic institution. In Canada, several recognized organizations that train facilitators are: the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution at St. Paul’s University – https://www.cicr-icrc.ca/en/ [1] ,

the Justice Institute – https://www.jibc.ca/ , and the Institute of Cultural Affairs – which also has an international/parent organization – http://www.ica-international.org/. A facilitator may also be certified by the International Association of Facilitators – https://www.iaf-world.org/site/. [2]

Role of a Facilitator

A facilitator’s role is to guide a group; to make it easier for a group to do its work. A facilitator takes the words and thoughts of participants and records them on a flipchart or laptop with projection. Facilitators are trained in processes to build consensus, prevent conflict and encourage creativity.

A facilitator has a strong process function versus being a content expert. Thus the role of a facilitator is not to contribute content, but rather to encourage the active participation of all group members and to ensure that their ideas are recorded as they stated them. In fact, people tend to get annoyed if you change the words they give you to your own.

It is helpful when facilitating groups to understand their “language” and the sector to which they belong. This enables you to know when groups are “getting off track” and to more easily summarize the ideas raised. It is also useful to encourage people to speak in “bullets” or “headlines” and there are various processes to assist participants to do this.

An effective facilitator is able to:

  • Create a safe environment
  • Listen
  • Observe
  • Paraphrase
  • Summarize main points
  • Use eye contact
  • Identify and interpret non-verbal messages; e.g. frowns and body language
  • Speak clearly
  • Write legibly
  • Ascertain if and when a group is “getting off track” and “bring them back on track”

Additional characteristics that are helpful to have as a facilitator are:

  • A good sense of humor
  • Flexibility
  • Openness
  • An interest in and sensitivity to people from diverse backgrounds
  • Lots of energy.

There are many styles of facilitation and each facilitator develops their own unique approach.

Benefits of an Outside Neutral Facilitator

You may be a leader, project manager or changemaker who has some facilitation expertise. If so, that is valuable. That said, it is useful to hire an outside facilitator for the following reasons:

  • They are a neutral third party and don’t have any biases or strong affiliations with any of the involved stakeholders
  • They can free you up as a leader to observe the group and team dynamics
  • They can enable you to contribute your ideas as a group member
  • They can provide a valuable “outsider” perspective on the group and its dynamics.

The Power of Facilitated Processes

I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of a well-designed and facilitated process. An example is while leading the design team of an international development project in Nigeria that was to be implemented in 2 states – one in the Muslim North and one in the Christian South. With the support of my team, I facilitated a process whereby the key stakeholders in each state had the opportunity to identify their current situation, vision a desired future (after 5 years of project support), identify the gaps between NOW and THEN and what support they needed to move toward their vision. The participants in each state identified someone to present their key findings to a national workshop held a week later in the capital city. My team supported each representative to prepare a PowerPoint of the key workshop outputs to present at the national workshop.

Partway through the national workshop, the head of Policy and Planning in the Muslim state stood up and said “Brothers and sisters, I thought we were so different from you. I believed we were not as advanced as you educationally and that our challenges and visions would be totally different. Hearing you present today I now realize that we are essentially the same; you face the same challenges as we do and have a similar vision. I am so looking forward to working together with you to turn our vision into reality!”

Another participant stood up and exclaimed, “This is the first conference I’ve been to in this country where students have been together with representatives of different levels of government, health providers and academia. Students should be here as THEY are the leaders of tomorrow!”

Such peak experiences are highlights of this work. They make me passionate about the opportunity to design and facilitate processes that bring diverse groups of people together, change beliefs, foster collaboration, and create initiatives that make a difference.

In Summary

Well-designed and facilitated processes have the power to:

  • Foster increased understanding (e.g. among different cultural and religious groups)
  • Model and promote collaboration within an organization
  • Create new partnerships
  • Build ownership; and
  • Foster creativity and innovation.

If you have a new project you’re designing, a multistakeholder initiative you’re working on, need some visioning or a new strategic plan, I’d love to speak with you. Please visit https://pamela-thompson.com/process-design-facilitation/ to book a Discovery Session.


[1] Where I received my initial training in facilitation, mediation and conflict resolution

[2] I was a member of the first group of facilitators who were certified in Canada by the International Association of Facilitators.