What’s Power Got to Do With It?

April 21, 2010 13 Comments
Photo by Great Beyond

|Photo by Great Beyond|http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyjcase/2759363747/|

A few years ago, I researched and wrote a masters’ thesis on addressing power dynamics in collaborative process design and facilitation.? I was doing the study based on great questions raised over the years by Cyndi Suarez (Co-Director of Northeast Action) – and with the belief that if power dynamics are not well understood and addressed, group process facilitators are likely to unknowingly reinforce the status quo – a scary thought for those of us working on social justice and social change!

It was an amazing, exciting and fully engaging project – which involved doing significant research on power, as well as in-depth interviews with all the Senior Associates at the Interaction Institute for Social Change to try to find out answers to questions like:

  • What kind of power dynamics we see most frequently in groups we work with
  • How IISC trainers/facilitators “diagnose” power dynamics in a group
  • What responsibility we feel to address power dynamics – and which kinds
  • How we address power dynamics
  • What tools are most helpful in addressing power dynamics
  • What individuals bring to this work
  • What backgrounds/experiences support our ability to address power issues in a room
  • Our greatest challenges related to addressing power dynamics
  • How much we should make explicit about power
  • What we wish we knew more about

One thing that woke me up at two in the morning – one of those notorious “aha” moments – was that when doing an extensive literature review of group facilitation literature and conflict resolution literature at that time (2005), I found that conflict resolution/engagement literature is packed full of discussions about addressing power dynamics – while group facilitation literature rarely (if ever) talks about power.? I only found a very small handful of references to power (as in two or three) anywhere in the very extensive group facilitation literature – and only in reference to people with positional power.? There is, in fact, an assumption built into group facilitation methodology that collaboration on its own somehow balances power dynamics.

I’m hoping to write over the next few weeks (or longer – we’ll see how long it takes) about what I found and some questions or ideas that came from it.? But before I launch full steam into it, I wondered what you might find helpful to discuss.? What about how power dynamics show up in how a group process is designed or facilitated would you find most useful to discuss?? Let’s get to it!


  • Really looking forward to this series! Is your masters thesis available online? Would love to read that as well.

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Eugene. Send me your email (lguinee@interactioninstitute.org). I’d be happy to share it with you!

  • Curtis says:

    Great, Linda! Looking forward to the discussion and future posts. One question I have, and have been asked, is “To what end?” When we choose to observe and work with power dynamics, why are we doing so? What do we hope to gain? What evidence suggests that we get it? The answer(s) may be obvious, but on the other hand, maybe not.

  • Linda,

    I too want your Master’s Thesis. I’m actually impressed you know where to find it :).

    I agree that the issues of power, real and perceived, are often overlooked in facilitation and collaboration planning and design discussions. Clearly, this impacts effectiveness in the short and long term. I also find acknowledgement of the role of influence on power is also glossed over.

    Look forward to your further musings and research on this.

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Jara. Great points! Send me your email address and I’m happy to send along the thesis.

    And Curtis, these are great questions. I’ll follow up in a post soon. And if anyone has responses, let us know what you think!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Glad you’re kicking off this series, Linda. Looking forward to mixing it up, particularly about ways that we can support people in building power and capacity for social change and social justice.

  • Eugenia Acuna says:

    This is gonna be good! I would add to the mix:
    when to point out to people the power they carry and the effects on the group and the process. I’m finding that many informal leaders don’t realize how powerful they are.
    Would love to hear how facilitators figure out quickly who’s “running the show” in a group.

  • Susan DeGenring says:

    Hi Linda (and all my IISC buddies!)

    I love that you are doing this. I recently attended an Authentic Leadership workshop in which the issue of power was, sadly, not addressed.

    I especially like to focus on what is being activated unconsciously by our facilitation. I have a background in Shadow Work coaching and facilitation which looks at hidden dynamics and how to balance them out. This perspective has me asking, what definition are you using for “power?” It can show up as an inflated or deflated shadow in several archetypal patterns. Looking forward to your work. PS would also love to read your thesis :–)

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Eugenia and Susan! Eugenia, great questions – look forward to deepening these conversations over the next weeks/months! And these are exactly the kinds of questions to explore! Looking forward to doing this with you!

    And Susan, I don’t know much (anything) about shadow work – but much of the work on power is about things that are often hidden (to those who have the power) but not so much (to those affected by it). Hope you’ll pitch in and add some of what you’ve been doing with the shadow work and help deepen the conversation!

  • Power, still thinking about it. I has the privilege of listening in on a focus group of emerging leaders of color who are part of a leadership development program. As they are reflecting mid way, I am struck by the comments they are all making about finding their own power through peer support and clarified intention. My take away, on a late Friday afternoon, is that power is a tricky and elusive thing. You know when you have it and you know when you don’t, but once you find it..doors and opportunities open.

    So as we think about ourselves as tools of change, how do we adapt and create spaces for all to find their power and work collectively?

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Jara! Another way I like to think about it is to ask what we can do in facilitation to actively help the group build its power – and the same for individuals.

    I’m very excited by where this conversation is already going!


  • Curtis says:


    Also would be interesting to explore connections between your series on power and mine on sustainability. What’s the connection/overlap?


  • jenny says:

    I found this site by researching power dynamics and was wondering if you could help me with some career related advice for a client who is interested in this topic. Would it be possible to contact you (or you me) about this? I can be reached at jbmartin@opiliving.com

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