The Language of Empowerment

When helping people change we are often tempted to take the lead. We want to direct them on how to make the change, tell them what they need to do, and perhaps even begin doing some of it for them. We may find ourselves working harder than the other person, wondering why they won’t take control over their life. If we find ourselves in this situation it may feel like we are helping, but we have actually become part of the problem.

When we over-help we take away the other persons power. We take away their sense of autonomy, a core psychological need, as described  in the previous post. When we do this, we are taking away a significant amount of their intrinsic motivation without even realizing it. To avoid this form of counterproductive helping, we need to focus on building the other persons sense of power. In short, we need to focus on empowerment.

Empowering conversations have these key elements: unconditional positive regard, a guiding spirit, and open-ended questions.

Unconditional positive regard is a concept used in Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychotherapy. It requires setting aside one’s judgments about another individual, empathizing with them, and assuming the best of them. When someone irritates us, it can be difficult to have unconditional positive regard, but when we start with empathy, we can understand the context of their behaviors, not taking it personally, and not blaming them for being ‘bad’, ‘lazy’, or ‘stupid.’ We can see them as an imperfect individual, like ourselves, striving to live a ‘good’ life. When we have unconditional positive regard, we empower individuals to then see them best in themselves, inspiring them want to act accordingly.

A guiding spirit requires one to guide rather than direct. Directing people consists of telling people what to do, whereas guiding is a form of collaboration with the other person, as discussed in a previous post on the art of collaboration. Guidance is like being a travel agent. You can offer feedback, but the work necessarily requires eliciting direction from the other person. Guidance empowers individuals to participate, making it more likely they will stick to a plan. We want to do things we’ve come up with, not things we have to do.

Open-ended questions empower individuals by allowing them to explore their own reasons for making a change. As opposed to closed-ended questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no, open-ended questions give the other person power to expand on their response in their own terms. For example, notice the difference between these two scenarios:

You: “Does your gambling cause you distress?”
Friend “Yes.”

You: “What are some things about your gambling that causes you distress?”
Friend: “I feel guilty because I haven’t told my spouse about my spending…”

Open-ended questions invite elaboration, empowering the individual to lead the course of the conversation. When we know their story, we can then use further open-ended questions to guide them toward making changes, using questions such as, “what are some things you can do start making changes in this area?”

Empowering conversations are far more likely to lead to change because we are helping the other person build the basic psychological need for autonomy. When people feel in control, they feel motivated. This is why unconditional positive regard, a guiding spirit, and open-ended questions are so powerful.



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