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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

The 4Rs for navigating confusing power dynamics [Wise Wednesdays]

“Don’t you dare give me that attitude”, he snapped.

“What attitude?”, I thought. Within a few seconds I found myself at the receiving end of a senior colleague’s yelling prowess.

I’d never had an “attitude problem” as a student. But I did disagree with his suggestions for the paper we were co-authoring…

I’ll never know exactly what was going on for him (but I do know that, sadly, he got into trouble for inappropriate behaviour with another female student soon after). I stayed calm and it blew over but, today, I would have handled the whole thing very differently.

Today, I would have handled the whole thing very differently.

These confusing interactions happen all the time. About a third of the coaching conversations I have each week with clients involve a degree of unpacking, processing and responding to similar events from a place of deep awareness and compassion.

These CPDs are not one-off incidents but patterns that develop in relationships.

The good news is that most of them can be transformed.

How do you deal with these unconscious dynamics? Let’s call them Confusing Power Dynamics or CPDs – pun intended since they are learning opportunities.

The first step is recognising them so that you can deal with them wisely and preserve your energy.

The 4Rs is a powerful transformational tool which can be tailored to any specific situation.

1) [Recognise] Notice the pull of the Confusing Power Dynamic (CPD).

In a CPD (Confusing Power Dynamic), you will often find yourself playing a role in the person’s imagination. It can be that you represent a threat, a scapegoat or an authority figure. They’ll project something onto you that makes you a Persecutor and where they become a Victim. A great tool is Karpman’s Drama Triangle (an interpersonal model which consists of a Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer). Often the roles can reverse, where you start to feel victimised and under pressure to justify yourself which pulls you further into the dynamic. Recognising this CPD has been triggered is the first step to breaking the spell.

2) [Refrain] Don’t isolate but curate your allies.

When you recognise what’s going on, it can be easy to try and ignore the CPD hoping it will go away or to try and fix it yourself by being the ‘better person’. This can leave you either isolated or inadequately resourced and eventually drained. It’s fine to work on regulating yourself but CPDs are often systemic. They are a collective endeavour by nature and require co-regulation by calling on discerning allies. Choose people who won’t subtly invalidate your experience and who can offer the right balance of empathy and discernment to help you choose your path forward.

3) [Relax]: Grieve the losses.

Confusing Power Dynamics in teams and organisations can bring up a lot of stress and tension without any immediate resolution because they are often systemic and involve deep wounds. An important leadership and self-care practice is to allow time and space for mourning what you hoped for. Grieving isn’t a weakness, it’s a leadership skill. Leadership entails vision and therefore an awareness of the gap between what is possible and what is actual. Healthy power therefore includes the ability to repeatedly let go, so that your energy is renewed and rechannelled as situations and interpersonal dynamics change around you.

4) [Resolve] Discern and prevent.

We often say “pick your battles” but also that the greatest warrior is the one who never has to draw her sword. A phrase I use in coaching is “be like water” i.e. discover the path of least resistance while using friction to polish the stones along your way and draw new landscapes that others can step into. By refining your awareness and presence you can sense what is happening before others do and take appropriate action to step away or pivot a conversation before the Confusing Power Dynamic sets in or amplifies. Remember, you always have the power to choose your next move no matter how much pressure is in the air. Your dignity can never be taken away from you.

Legend in the making: B is an executive in a large health organisation. When we met she was ready to leave her job due to frustrations with her boss and an overwhelming portfolio. We worked to recognise and reverse the Confusing Power Dynamics that were draining her. To her surprise, this enhanced her leadership power and she has now happily accepted a promotion for a tailored role that she shaped through her expanded leadership presence. Transformation isn’t necessarily about leaving a role but about shaping it powerfully. Congratulations, doc!

Recognise the Confusing Power Dynamic, Refrain from what you would usually do, Relax to release the tension and Resolve to stay in your power to choose.

Have a great week,


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