A Coaching Power Tool By Tessa D’Arcangelew Ampersand, Transformational Coach for Mid-Career Movement Builders, UNITED STATES
The Impact of Powerlessness vs. Owning It
There is so much power to be had through communities coming together and collectively working for their shared needs and dreams. Often, the people who bring people together and build this power are community organizers, artists, educators, and non-profit employees, whose skill, talent, and purpose-driven lives become the water and care that grow seeds into a garden.
These people—movement builders—face their own reckoning with power: their powerlessness in the face of authority, the experience of being a source of authority when leading others, and the power of winning a campaign or initiative. Oftentimes, the most pressing experience of power comes from the powerlessness people feel when facing burnout, exhaustion, or emotional or mental overload. This can lead to blaming, breakdown of relationships, and a loss of a sense of self and purpose.
The Difference Between Powerlessness vs. Owning It
The experience of powerlessness is one that quickly leads people towards feeling stuck, lost, and silenced. It is not an insignificant experience, as so much of human history is driven by who has power, who does not have power, who wants power, and who deserves it. While our history books often focus on the victors and those who lost power, we learn less about the powerless. Who were the people from ancient times that were considered too powerless to write about in history books? In modern times, one way to understand powerlessness is as described by Eric Anicich, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business as “inherently threatening.” A colleague recently described it to me as being unmoored from her purpose. The lack of decision-making power in her role was impacting her overall sense of self as it relates to her job.
Defining Owning It
NaoshadPochkhanawala, who appears to be a random dude on the internet, said, “Feeling powerless and not acting is like feeling hungry and choosing not to eat.” Despite not being able to identify who this person is, I find the concept compelling: the choice to act is the relationship between ownership and powerlessness. Owning it is about naming what is yours, this can be a quality, a skill, a form of authority or power, something you can choose, something you can act upon.
Ownership and “Owning It” are closely related, but different. Ownership is about taking responsibility for the impacts of your actions, it’s about accountability, and taking the initiative. Owning It is inclusive of these qualities, but it is also light, playful, and focused on the greatness in the individual person, rather than in their outward accomplishments or presence. The phrase “Owning It” also has its roots in subversive cultures: you can imagine the different tones and nuances as it is shouted into the mic by a drag queen cheering on her fellow performer, a girl boss mantra said into the mirror, or from the courtside at a city pick-up basketball game among the youth of color. It is harder to imagine it said by straight-laced male corporate executives. These subcultures all formed in response to the powerlessness they felt in society and in the workplace. As these subcultures grew, so did their power, and with it, the phrase “owning it” became commonplace as a celebration of becoming powerful, and as a celebration of the individual at the center of that.
Powerlessness vs. Owning It in Coaching
Most everyone experiences powerlessness at different times in their lives. We all die. That is something we are all powerless to change, though some Silicon Valley tech CEOs continue to try.While many bristles at the billions of dollars being spent on a quest for the ultra-rich to beat death while houselessness and global hunger and poverty are on the rise, I can’t help but notice two things: 1) this is perhaps the one aspect of the rich and famous lives where they are absolutely powerless, and 2) in the face of that powerlessness they are choosing to act. They are Owning It.
For most of us, powerlessness is a common, sometimes daily experience:
- The fact of a global pandemic;
- A boss that takes away our autonomy or disrespects us;
- A loved one that is sick;
- Fighting an insurance provider or some other bureaucracy and hitting dead ends, etc.
These experiences of powerlessness can be minute or lasting, but in both situations, when we become passive and inactive, we are creating neural patterns that lead to more and more choices to succumb to powerlessness. “It is estimated that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master a skill and develop an associated neural pathway.”Every time we discount our power we contribute a building block to a negative neural pathway, but the opposite can be true. Through coaching, we can deliberately interrupt negative thought patterns and replace them with positive ones in which we Own It, building new neural pathways.
The reality is that when people feel powerlessness, they, in fact, are often powerless in their specific situation. Coaching is not gaslighting, and we are not seeking to flip a powerlessness perspective by trying to convince someone that they are powerful in that situation. Rather, the Own It perspective focuses on the individual, digging into what makes them feel good and joyful, what makes them feel powerful and alive, and what motivates and brings them excitement. An Own It mindset is one in which an individual identifies ways they can take action within their realm of influence. Here’s what an Own It mindset could look like:
- Acknowledging the fear and challenges of the global pandemic, and seeking out an opportunity that is only available because of isolation or stay-at-home orders;
- Developing a working group in the workplace in which you can collaborate on a project you enjoy and work with colleagues you like, instead of focusing on a toxic manager;
- Caring for a loved one that is sick, rather than avoiding them;
- Giving up on your fight with a bureaucratic insurance company that will never reimburse you, and using the time you would have spent on hold with agents spending time with your kids.
None of these Own It mindsets actually change the conditions of powerlessness, but they find ways to act despite those conditions.
The experience of shifting from powerlessness to owning it can in and of itself be a powerful experience, in which the client is able to recognize the skills and qualities within, skills and qualities they can continue to build upon as they shift from neural patterns of powerlessness to neural patterns of action. In the coaching session, the coach supports the client as they find ways to Own It in the conversation—carefully shifting from a frame of mind in which they feel overburdened, overworked, and unable to move forward, to looking beyond their current narrative and framework to find the realms and spaces within which they can act. This shifts the story in the session from “I cannot” to “I could” to “I will!” This shifting process retrains their training, reminds the client that there is a possibility in everything, and holds a mirror to the client so they can see how the process they underwent in the session is a process they can make true for their whole life. In this way, the session is a space for practice, so when they go out into the world they have the confidence, awareness, and skill to Own It.
Friend, T. (2017, March 27). Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever. The New Yorker, pp.
Hani, J. (2017, August 8). The Neuroscience of Behavior Change. StartUp Health, pp.
Robson, D. (2020, December 14). How to Restore Your Sense of Control When You Feel Powerless. BBC, pp.