Want To Step Out Of A Power Struggle?

When I was teaching in Bali, I got into a massive power struggle with a 12th grade student (let’s call him James).

He surfed most mornings before school, and his father occupied a well-known and powerful position at his work.

At a school serving students from many nationalities, I was struggling to establish norms in my classroom that worked for everyone.

Trying to be flexible and kind, I had been accommodating late work and moving deadlines, but was getting annoyed by how much late work I was constantly fielding.

Island time.

Eventually, I was tired of making “exceptions” for students, so I made it crystal clear that I absolutely would NOT accept any final papers coming in late the next day. Students were to place their final drafts in my assignment collection tray on or before 8:00am the next morning.

James raised his hand, “But, what if I drop it off at, like, 8:01am?”

Yup. That moment.

I could feel my heart sink as I walked straight into A Classic Power Struggle.

“Look, if you can get it here by 8:01am, then you can get it here by 8:00am. Make sure it’s on time or I won't be accepting it.”

Every time we make a demand, we set up a power-struggle in which others can choose to submit (usually resentfully), or rebel.

Predictably, at 8:01am, James sauntered into my classroom looked directly at me, and dropped his paper ceremoniously into the tray.

Technically Late.

Seeing no other options at the time, I fulfilled my prescribed role and told him I wouldn’t grade his paper and he fulfilled his prescribed role and flew into a massive rage, stormed out of my classroom, told me he wasn’t submitting to “this bullshit” and walked out of school.

Fifteen minutes later, the principal arrived. His father had called and demanded that I be fired for gross incompetence and where did she get her teachers from anyway? Drama ensued.

Domination scripts are driven by fear and control; they breed fragmentation and force.

I often think back to this situation, because it fundamentally expanded my own relationship with authority, particularly when I am the party wielding power.

The magic happened when I recognized myself in James.

I have been THAT student. I admire people who have the courage to call out authority when needed. But this time, I was the one enacting and enforcing the “dumb rules.”

Instead of entrenching myself in the power struggle and then continuing to behave in ways that just didn’t feel good to me, I took some time - as Marshall Rosenberg would say - to bring myself back to life again.

I connected more deeply with what I was feeling and what actually deeply mattered about this to me, and then did the same for James, his father and the school administration’s respective perspectives.

Seeing our shared humanity and taking multiple perspectives in that moment widened my range of options.

When we open our hearts to our collective humanity, we draw on a deeper wisdom and begin to ask different questions:

  • What is going to help here and now?

  • What is needed next in this situation?

  • What will serve meaningful learning and understanding?

  • What will build trust, and increase goodwill?

With some help from a highly-skilled third party, James and I sat down to talk.

I dropped my attachment to the trivial timing of the paper, and focused instead on what I really valued. (Hold strategies lightly, needs tightly.)

I expressed empathy for his desire for meaningful structures and for being treated with respect. I wanted those things too. I shared a vision with him of a relationship in which we drop the roles of “student” and “teacher” and engage with each other as human beings, learning from each other.

I wanted to trust that he - and other students - both cared about the needs I was trying to meet for myself, and also about developing personally meaningful habits that would serve them in the future.

It was a long conversation, but one of the most impactful ones of my career. He expressed understanding for the role he played in escalating the situation with me, we reached a place of mutual care, and had a productive and fun rest of that year. Magic.

Every time we want to “make” ourselves or others do something out of ideas of “rightness,” we lose our connection to what really matters to us all.

This week, let’s tend to language:

  • How often do you tell yourself you “have to” you “must” or you “should” do something? Feel all that inner resistance?

  • What would it be like to be gentler with yourself and others?

  • What if you replaced the “should” with “could”?

  • Or you responded to your internal demands with the add-on phrase, “well, yes, that is one possibility … here are some others…” ?

Care, growth, learning, discovery, mutuality ~ these cannot be forced or demanded.

They are innate, emergent and have their own intelligence. Get out of the way by providing safe, empathic relational conditions ... surprising solutions are bound to find you.