A Coaching Power Tool By Synnøve Thue, Transformational Coach, NORWAY
Why Does Power vs. Doubt Exist?
Everyone feels insecure sometimes; it is part of being a whole, authentic human being. However, constant feelings of insecurity and an exaggerated sense of inadequacy can be more than just a passing feeling; it can become a chronic condition that influences every facet of life.
Very few people come to coaching wishing to “feel powerful”. When a client displays, or even directly express, a sense of doubting themselves come to coaching, it is often with the belief that they need “confidence” or help to manage their time or energy. While it is essential to respect the client’s wishes and explore what they mean by these concepts, I have, in my own practice, working with clients who arrive very quickly at the “real” work they want to do – “take their power back”.
Therefore it is important to understand the difference between low self-esteem and feeling powerful—feeling powerless leads to behaviors that reinforce the state of insecurity and keep us trapped in negative thinking loops. Becoming aware that there is a choice and then taking the steps needed to grow can be a life-changing transformation.
The Difference Between Doubt vs. Power
Doubt: What is Low Self-Esteem?
Low self-esteem is the belief that you are not worth much as a person. It is a feeling of worthlessness accompanied by low self-respect, negative self-conception, and a lack of self-acceptance. It is often triggered by negative experiences and events in life or a specific event that has occurred at a particular time. In addition to thinking negatively about yourself, you may tend to place unreasonable expectations on yourself, see yourself as inadequate, blame yourself when things go wrong, and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Here are some of the ways low self-esteem may show up:
- Prioritizing others and sacrificing own needs.
- Seeking external validation in order to feel important.
- Fear of feeling judged by others and a need to be “perfect”.
- Needing to control, fix or manage other people`s emotional states.
- Not finishing projects and procrastinating, or overworking.
- They sabotage their own success.
Power: Feeling Powerful
People who feel powerful do not overthink their doubts or fears. Instead, they use them as stepping stones to learning and growth opportunities. Action creates self-esteem, like working out a muscle. It is not about being sure about everything and feeling confident before doing anything; it is about feeling sure that you can handle anything.
Power in this context is defined as an individual ability (Weber, 1978: 53), and building on Sturm and Antonakis` characteristics of power:
“Power is about having (a) discretion (agency) to act and (b) the means (innate, position) to (c) enforce one`s will” (p. 139).
Here is what people who feel powerful do differently:
- Take action even when they are scared and take more risks (Galinskyetal., 2003).
- Express and take responsibility for their emotions and needs
- They are more creative and innovative because they are less affected by other peoples’ ideas and opinions (Galinskyet al., 2008).
- They don’t rely on others to care for them; they take care of themselves.
- Detach their intrinsic value from achievements and know “their best” is good enough.
- They feel less burdened in life and more capable (Lee &Schnall, 2014).
Studies have even shown that feeling powerful has health benefits when it comes to heart health (Scheepers et al., 2011).
The Coaching Context:
The reflective practice of coaching creates a safe space to explore vulnerable feelings and transform them into a new sense of a powerful self. The coaching partnership itself can fuel internal validation for the client, in a context of no judgment and high positive regard. This perspective-shifting tool is based on the classic method of power priming to evoke feeling powerful (Galinsky, et al., 2006), but with a deliberate twist:
Firstly, as priming methods have come under scrutiny for giving no actual power (Khademiet al., 2021), I argue that this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The proven cognitive effects of felt power(Tostetal., 2012) can be used with evidence-based coaching to support agency and action.
Secondly, the literature has focused too much on the negative aspects of power within traditional and hierarchical organizational contexts. A leader discounting expert advice and a client who is starting to trust her- or himself instead of seeking external validation are two very different outcomes of the same effect.
Making the Shift:
The following exercise can be used as a guided visualization or a journaling question, tailored to the client`s learning style:
“Imagine a version of yourself waking up and feeling absolutely certain about everything. You have everything you need to make anything happen, and you know everything will turn out just how you want it.
- How does it feel or look like to be that person?
- What do you believe?
- What do you do differently?”
Follow-up coaching questions:
- What is going well right now?
- What is in your power to change?
- Who is the true you?
- What are you no longer willing to tolerate?
- Where are you heading?
- What needs to change right now?
- What else can you be certain about?
In my own practice, I have seen how this perspective change empowers clients to make enormous changes in their life.
The focus rests on the personal locus of control, nested in a larger systemic view of the client`s social role(s). Often, the tool is a source of continued shifts for the client as they return to the image or concept again and again and infuse it with their own images, words, and meaning- actively drawing their powerful self into the present.
Several clients have very quickly arrived at what they want to change in their life after using this tool. The process that has followed naturally has included further identity work, negotiating their different roles in both personal and work life, as well as exploring ways to solidify their personal power, freedom, and self-expression.
There is still much research to the done on personal, relative, and subjective power, and coaching can be highly valuable to support the powerless to claim their power.
Galinsky, A.D. Gruenfeld, D. H. & Magee, J. C. (2003). From Power to Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 85, No. 3, 453-466.
Galinsky, A.D., Magee, J.C., Inesi, M.E. &Gruenfeld, D.H. (2006). Power and Perspectives Not Taken. Psychological Science, Vol. 17, No. 12, 1068-1074.
Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., Magee, J. C., Whitson, J. A. &Linjenquist, K. A. (2008). Power Reduces the Press of the Situation: Implications for Creativity, Conformity, and Dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 95, No. 6, 1450-1466.
Khademi, M., Mast, M. S., Zehnder, &C., De Saint Priest, O. (2021). The problem of demand effect in power studies: Moving beyond power priming. The Leadership Quarterly. Vol. 32, 1-15.
Lee, E. H. &Schnall, S. (2014). The Influence of Social Power on Weight Perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Vol. 143, No. 4, 1-7.
Magee, J. C. & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). Social Hierarchy: The Self-Reinforcing Nature of Power and Status. The Academy of Management Annals, 2, 351–398.
Scheepers, D., Wit, F. Ellemers, N. &sassenberg, K. (2011).Social power makes the heart work more efficiently: Evidence from cardiovascular markers of challenge and threat. Journal of Experimental Psychology, doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.06.014.
Sturm, R. E., &Antonakis, J. (2015).Interpersonal Power: A Review, Critique, and Research Agenda. Journal of Management, Vol. 41, No. 1, 136-163.
Tost, L. E., Gino, F. &Larrick, R.P. (2012). Power, competitiveness, and advice-taking: Why the powerful don´t listen. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Vol. 117, 53-65.
Weber, M. (1978). Economy and Society, ed. G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berkeley: the University of California Press.