Power: power over, power with, empowerment

The way that power is distributed, the way we have an effect, is shaped by who is making the choice and by who is being affected. When one person or party makes a choice and it affects someone else, we call that power over. When a group of people make a choice that affects them all, we call that power with. When a person makes a choice which primarily affects them alone, we call that empowerment.

Power over

Most of what we think of as power is power over. Parents have the power to tell their children when curfew will be; bosses tell their employees what the quota will be; police tell drivers when to pull over; judges tell them what the fine will be. Even the power that the chair under me has is power over. It has power over my body to keep it upright and in position to type these words. Everyone and everything has power over.

Power with

There is another form of power which is less common but more powerful than power over. It is power with. Power with is constructed by an agreement in which all parties decide to act in ways that construct the welfare of all. We have decided how we are going to be with each other in a manner that serves us.

We all speak the same language. This language may be different in different communities or at different times in the same community, but if we are going to understand each other, we have to speak the same language. We have decided that we are governed by the rule of law, that we honor each other's rights, and that we act for the common good. These are all examples of power with.

Over many generations we have constructed a fabric of social conventions that serve to support the needs of the whole society. We subordinate our individual wishes to the will of the common good because we know we ultimately are served by doing so. When the understandings which create the social fabric begin to crumble, we get very anxious and it becomes more and more likely that we will not get what we need.

In the classic novel Lord of the Flies, a group of well bred, well socialized school boys are marooned on a deserted island without adults to structure their common life. At first they maintain their social arrangements but, little by little, the stability of the life they have known decays and they descend into barbaric behavior. When they are rescued, they immediately and gratefully snap back into the safety of civil society. Through the lens of the Orders of Self we could say that the perspective of 3° was not solidly formed in the boys and they reverted to 2° until the adults returned to restore it.

The United States, in recent years, has attempted to introduce democracy to nations that have not been through the long and arduous process of developing a shared understanding of the nature and purpose of modern social institutions. These efforts have appeared to be successful initially because of the promise of social stability that came with them. But, over time, the institutions have crumbled because the agreements that must be in place to support them have not been secured.

When we have had personal experiences with constructing relationships through understandings of power with, we know how to do it and why to do it. We form alliances and associations easily and quickly. When we haven't had such experiences it may not occur to us that it is an advantage to work with others. Paradoxically, power with is both more powerful than power over and more fragile.


Most powerful of all is empowerment. I am empowered to the degree to which I can construct what I need all by myself. I don't have to get it from someone else. I don't have to build and repair agreements with others. All I have to do is to create what I need. I can feed and dress myself. I can dial a phone and drive a car and make a date.

No wait, I can't make a date by myself. I have to construct an agreement with someone else. I can't create everything I need all by myself. And this is where empowerment runs aground. To the degree to which I can make the choices that construct what I need without expecting or depending on others to change, that is the degree to which I am empowered. I want to be as empowered as I can be. But some things I can only get by constructing them in relationships with others. I cannot create intimacy all by myself.

Who Chooses

Who is Affected



Power Over

I do/ other does

Other is / I am

Easily obtained

Easily abused

Power With

We do

We are

More powerful

Requires agreement


I do

I am

Most powerful

Ineffective on relationships

Still we pursue the goal of empowerment but we do it by focusing on power with. We live in a world of power over and desire a world of empowerment and we get there by traveling through the land of power with.

One of the most evident ways that we are empowered is in how we care for ourselves. I can, for example, feed and dress myself. Training in this started at an early age.

As a child I wanted to run barefoot outside. My dad wanted me to wear shoes when I went outside. He was bigger than me. He had power over me such that, if I wanted to go outside, I had to have shoes on.

One day as I was playing outside with my shoes on, I discovered that one shoe was loose. I played with it and got it off. I played with the other one and got it off too. Then I took my socks off. Ah...barefoot in the grass. I ran and played and kicked the ball. I kicked the ball across the gravel drive but when I chased it, ouch, that hurts. It didn't feel that way when I had shoes on.

So I called out, "Daddy, shoes."

And he said to me, "Get your shoes and socks and bring them to me and I will put them on." And while I did, I realized that I hadn't had to bring him the shoes and socks before. He had always done that. Our relationship had changed. We had gone from power over to power with. Before he wanted me to have shoes on and I didn't but he was bigger than me so he got his way. Now we both wanted me to have my shoes on so we worked together to create what we both wanted. We both wanted Mark to have his shoes on.

Over time I learned to find my shoes and socks, and then to put on my socks, and then my shoes (I had to know which one went on which foot), and then to tie them, and then to tie them so they stayed tied. Little by little over time I became empowered to put on my shoes and socks. But I did so by going from power over through power with to empowerment.

There is very little of what we have learned to do on our own behalf that we did not learn in the context of a relationship with someone who wanted us to learn. Even when I bake a cake all by myself using only the recipe in a cookbook, I still have an alliance with the author of the cookbook who wrote it so that I and others could cook on our own.

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