Creating Transformation in Practice – The Pillar of Empowerment

The third pillar of creating transformation in practice is the pillar of Empowerment. This can be a somewhat confusing concept – what does it mean to empower others? Simply put, empowering others means that someone you encounter feels more powerful, more clear, more able, more inspired, more confident, more energized, more optimistic – or just Bigger – than they were before they encountered you.

Granted, there is a lot of similarity between caring for others and empowering others. If you’d like two really simple examples, caring for another might include helping them to carry their bags – or giving them a ‘good morning’ or a hug when they need it. Empowering someone might be expressed by saying the right thing at the right time to someone who needs to hear it; or asking the right questions, or helping someone to see something in a different way that really helps their point of view. Obviously these two types of actions (caring and empowering) have a lot of overlap, but I think you get the idea.

On a basic level, empowering others can be as easy as telling someone, “gosh you do that well!” Or, “I really admire you because of _________.” However, there are other levels when it’s not that simple. On a more subtle level, empowering others requires a certain sort of vision – a sense of sight – a type of perception. It means seeing past the surface levels to the very deepest parts of a person where their greatness and essence resides. It means reaching and bringing their most powerful, greatest and most essential self to the surface. Needless to say, in order to reach someone on this level, you have to first see them on this level. This ability to see the essence and greatness of a person says much more about the seer than the one who is seen.

How do you see people? Do you see them as great beings (albeit sometimes not aware of their own greatness)? Do you see them as an expression of the Divine? Do you see people as spiritual souls trying their very best to express themselves in a challenging physical world? On a more practical level, do you see people as vulnerable and needy, reaching out even in the midst of fear and misunderstanding? Do you see people as being harder on themselves than they are on others? Do you see the unkind stories people tell themselves about their world? Do you see how they punish themselves? Do you see how badly they want love – and how sometimes they don’t know how to get it? In the case of people who are truly dangerous or toxic (and the appellation ‘truly’ belongs only to a very small subset of humanity), do you see how much easier it is to ‘see’ those people than to ‘be’ them? (Remember the old rhyme? – ‘I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one – but I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather ‘see’ than ‘be’ one’.) Do you see how much more preferable it is to be the one who is robbed, rather than the thief? Can you look at even those who are beyond your reach with compassion and caring (at the same time as you take steps to protect or distance yourself as necessary)?

Again, the ability to empower is profoundly linked to our ability to see others at their most essential, truest, most divine, most vulnerable, most needy, most great, most powerful, most sublime, most spiritual, most human.

How does one cultivate this kind of sight – insight, actually – into one’s fellow human beings? Again, it is mostly a reflection of one’s basic view of one’s fellow human beings. This is also a reflection of one’s view of oneself. Needless to say, one cannot see others’ greatest selves, if one does not see one’s own self that way. Granted, it can be harder to see oneself with love and compassion than it can be to see others that way. Yet, we know we should try and see ourselves that way, even if it is a challenge to do so at times. Many of us judge ourselves much more harshly than we judge others. For this reason, it is of prime importance to have at least one or two people in our lives that can reflect this vision of ourselves back to us when we have lost the ability to see ourselves in that way. When we strive to empower others, we need to keep those who can empower us closest.

So, how can we cultivate this kind of vision into the essence of another person?

The analogy I’d give is the development of an artist. Anyone who pursues the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, photography) learns to sharpen their vision relative to the world. They look carefully; they learn to see with an artist’s eye. They also cultivate what is called ‘eye-hand coordination.’ This is the ability to translate their keen vision into the movements of their hand so that it can be expressed as lines drawn on a page; the movement of a brush on canvas; the handling of a camera to capture what is seen. I’m emphasizing this sharpening of the artist’s eye and the eye-hand coordination that develops along with it for a particular reason: even someone who is born with a measure of artistic talent knows that it reaches its pinnacle with long use and practice. It is not an ability that one either has or does not have. Even those who are blessed with talent must sharpen it. So also, the ability to see the depths of a person, who they really are and what they really need in a given moment, is like the cultivation of an artist’s eye and hand. Some people may be born with more of a natural perceptive ability than others, but everyone can develop this ability through the practice of careful listening and careful seeing.

One thing that empowerment requires is an ability to see past one’s own personal biases and points of view. Empowerment definitely does not mean imposing one’s own agenda on another person. The crusading zealot who preaches their rigid view of the world to others and demands that they accept it is not empowering to others. He or she is not bringing out what is most essential about those other people. Instead, they are trying to squeeze people into their own narrow box. This is not something that is done only by religious fundamentalists (the common stereotype). Trying to get someone to accept one’s worldview is something that is done by ideologists of every stripe – the religious, the secular, the political, the therapeutic, the oppressive, the ‘helpful.’ Empowering someone means looking past our own beliefs and dogmas and really seeing the other person for who they are on the deepest level. It means going outside of our own narrow selves, our narrow perspectives. It means really looking, really listening to another person.

Lastly, empowering others means being first and foremost, respectful of the personal territory of others. As much as it entails developing an ability to see deeply into the nature of another person, it also means being acutely aware of the boundaries of another person. This is not (at all) about Freudian–style analysis of others. It does not mean pushing people to reveal themselves in ways they don’t want to. It is not about taking people apart. It certainly does not mean thinking that we know more about someone than they know about themselves. As a matter of fact, listening to someone’s words about themselves and their life is the very foundation of understanding another – what someone else says about themselves is much more important than what we see or think we see in them. Respect is the beginning, middle and end of empowerment.

Next column: Empowering others from real-life experience

Miriam E. Mendelson, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Transformative Development, Counseling, Consulting and Mediation in NYC and is available for speaking engagements, individual and family counseling and business consultation. Click here for a complete list of all Miriam Mendelson’s articles. Column feedback and questions are welcome:
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