From Feudal Triangles to Plural Circles. Power in ART

Empower! Circling the feudal triangles of old.

“What’s In The Way, Is The Way” explains Susanna Carman, AR+ PerMem and leader of the Transition Leadership Lab (TLL), a 9-week learning experience for design, leadership and change practitioners who are ready to take on the challenge of skillful AND mindful leadership in our rapidly transforming world.

Last week Susanna and TLL participants  welcomed AR+ curator, Hilary Bradbury to introduce Action-oriented Research for Transformation. She tried out one formulation to get the conversation started about what self/system transformation the participants were stakeholders in:

Consider ART is a social learning process in which participants learn with one another. Moreover, it is a societal learning process in which stakeholders to an issue get to realize that they make up the system and therefore have the power to remake that system together.

Within the ART context, Hilary illuminated one of the most critical challenges to our human potential for collective action – the ubiquitous, unconscious patterns of power dynamics  – with all their attendant emotional foundations – at play in the relational field.

In preparation for the session, participants were invited to reflect on a past difficult interaction and to document a scene from it as if a piece of theatre. Participants should also write notes about their unspoken emotions  and any other other corresponding dialogue that ran through our heads.

During the session Hilary Bradbury then introduced 2 basic power dynamic patterns  and a few types of power – some more unilateral and others more collaborative. Then she invited all to review our scenes with the various definitions in mind. It was particularly important to be curious about the type of emotional landscape around their scene. She offered a spectrum from positive relational regard to self centered isolation (playing a bit with polyvagal theory!). The following were offered as definitions to help operationalize some of these squishy dynamics:

  1. Power Over: I can make this person do something they don’t want.
  2. Power Under: This person can make me do something I don’t want.
  3. Power Within: I feel self expressed, powerful presence, energized.
  4. Power With: Equals. Creative momentum together.
  5. Relational Regard: E.g., friendly, patient, kind, admiring, attracted.
  6. Inquiry: I shared my thinking/discussed/asked questions.

Some participants identified with a single pattern (e.g. power over/power under). Others recognized movements across multiple patterns. All acknowledged the fundamentals of pace, presence and curiosity as enablers of conscious choice in navigating these dynamics in real time.

Susanna’s take away from the experience is that despite our best intentions, we rarely have the choice to engage consciously in power dynamics WHEN our emotional reflexes are activated, no matter our level of ego maturity.

This begs the questions – amidst a world in transition, what role might trauma play in our capacity to skillfully and mindfully navigate power dynamics in real time? How might we benefit from a deepened understanding of trauma and its symptoms to address the gap between great intentions and what arises in those moments between people? How might this understanding illuminate the way for learning communities with regard to power dynamics?

Working with Hilary and her formulations of ART, with its attention to power and affect, has inspired the Transition Leadership Lab to explore these questions and more on our experiential journey into leadership, learning and design amidst a rapidly transforming world.

More about Susanna Carman and her work here: And a snippet from our session below… 

Hilary Bradbury on moving from power over triangles to power with circles