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Choose Your Track


In order to move in the right direction, I believe that people and organizations should understand the interplay between power and connection.  This understanding should drive our individual responses as well as how organizations interact with the community and even how policies should be considered at a state or national level. I recently heard a very profound statement that has impacted my life and infiltrated my thoughts. Stephen Porges said that whenever we interact, we can take one of two tracksWe can take the track of power, or we can take the track of connection.

He went on to say that we also have to understand that power harms connection. When we encounter a power struggle, we become defensive because our body senses threat or danger.  When we enter a defense mode, our brain shifts into the emotional or survival brain where we instinctively react rather than thoughtfully respond. So, during a power struggle, people are reacting to each other and the situation rather than reflecting and responding with well thought out intentions. Often things are said or done in the moment that harm the connection because it is very difficult to feel threatened and feel connected at the same time. Our brain prioritizes our safety. This should inspire us to seek connection more than take a stand with power, especially when working with people who may have experienced a lot of adversities.

Seeking connection rather than power can be very deceptive. Even our social safety net system, designed to connect basic resources with those in need, can take the tract of power rather than connection.  This can be communicated through direct interpersonal conversations (and body language) of front-line workers as well as the policies and practices put into place for the program. If the people distributing the resources imply a power stance that since they are providing, they also have the power to remove those resources, this power influence will harm the connection and may drive potential recipients away. In fact, at times, the power of providing needed resources (just the implication that I have something you need) may actually harm the connection and keep people from seeking assistance.  How often have we turned down assistance or said, “I’m okay” because we do not want to appear in need?

We may see this play out in child welfare, juvenile justice and school systems; some parents and children who interact with these agencies feel they lack power.  Across our country, trauma informed agencies and schools are working to create the connection with families to replace the existing power imbalance with a relationship that creates trust so families actually seek out and work with someone to create their own supportive plan.  We should watch the language we use; shift away from “sharing power” to “working with you and for you.”  Collaborating means more than seeking advice; instead, we invite people to be a part of the creative process of change to ensure their voice and experience help drive the actions which shifts away from power and moves toward connection.  This requires change in attitudes, language, and practices of all people involved to ensure trust is built and empowerment is welcome. Change takes time; building trust takes time; both are worth the time.

We even see this play in our larger society.  Our democratic system was designed for our elected officials to bring the voices of the people together, and through connection and communication develop laws for the good of our country.  Power has swept through that system and creates division; legislators are feeling defensive and taking a power stance.  The ability to connect, hear all options and thoughtfully come to conclusions seems to have been replaced with a struggle to retain individual or party power- at all costs.

Power is a quick to use.  There are times that power does need to be taken; when someone is about to be hurt, or when we see the good of society being harmed and need to take power so it does not.  We wield power when we feel we need it to help ourselves or others.  It is very beneficial to have a connection with the person or people you’re going to influence before taking the power track. If you have a connection, it’s easier to repair that connection. Connection though comes through building trust and providing a felt sense of safety; these two things take time and perseverance, especially for people who have or are experiencing a lot of adversities.  Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection.  That’s why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people. (Ryan North)

When we see someone struggling, we want a magic wand to make all those struggles disappear and bring peace. Healing and change take longer than a wave of a wand, especially for those of us who have a lot of adversity without adequate support and resources. Many people, agencies and organizations work really hard to create programs and share tools to bring healing and change, which is a good thing, however the long-term work of shifting individual’s thoughts and an organization’s culture to be trauma informed is a process that takes months or years.  Relationships, connection and belonging are the keys to healing trauma, both in individuals and as a collective. We should very carefully examine our interactions, language we use, policies, tools, and practices to ensure we prioritize connection. Power is swift; it gives the allure of fixing something which is broken or wrong.  Connection takes time; it allows trust and safety to enter and builds reciprocity and empowerment to move forward.

Written by:

Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC, NCSC


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