Empowering Dialogue and the Nature of Power:
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil1
(Nietzsche 1886/Kaufmann 1963:89)
Many people believe that effective dialogue is about peaceful agreement, and conflict resolution; that if an attempt to gain power or address control comes into a dialogue, there must be some partisan or repressive agenda at hand. Only one side can have power. This is false. Anything can be effective communication if it accomplishes its goal. Insulting can be effective communication if it influences the listener negatively. Lying can be effective if it deceives the receiver. The core of interpersonal communication and dialogue is power because it affects and influences actions. By openly examining the nature of power rather than avoiding the abyss and sinking in, I intend to look back into it, and show how power can be used to gain resources for, and direct two or more parties toward dialogue.
Power is, as Nietzsche suggests, a reciprocal (though not always equal.) creative force. Power sharing is the most important aspect of interpersonal communication, because power is the ability to influence or control events. It is not negative. It is beyond good and evil. It can only be used for negative means. Power depends on resources parties can employ to influence and attain direction. The effectiveness of a power resource used depends on “endorsement” by another
group. So, power exists in the interpersonal relationship-interaction. For effective interpersonal communication, use power for attaining mutual goals, and disregard ideology, which is more of an abstraction that does not exist outside the mind. One can tell the use/effectiveness of power through the outcome it produces. In interpersonal communication, we want to aim for mutually empowering communication that is whatever enhances the ability of both parties to create and control events. In this perspective, my three biggest influences have been political science, mythology, and mindfulness. (In order: Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and Thich Nhat Hanh.)
First, when I include political control, I do not mean domination. Domination is not a mutually accepted relationship. In that way, I mean the French and Raven definition of legitimate authority (trust), based on increasing power; whether legitimate, expert, or referent (never coercive power; which French and Raven include.) Paraphrasing Friedrich Nietzsche: If you want to be a friend, you must be willing to risk being an enemy. Nothing can get done if you are too soft, and avoid real issues. The most important thing is that you attain mutual goals, dealing with the persons or parties themselves, not whether or not you think a person likes you. This includes attitudes and events about which you share the same ideas and perceptions. Trust should be reliable, repeatable, and efficient. The danger of sacrificing interests in a power sharing relationship is that the sacrificed concerns are not addressed or viewed as legitimate: Openly discuss power in relationships. Doing so will help increase power in life and the lives of others as well as direct both powers toward a goal, the higher aim of the relationship.
Heroes have goals such higher aims, and heroes are motivated by mythology. Giving himself/herself to the Greater Good, the hero follows his/her bliss, and becomes immortalized by spiritual/physical heroic deeds beyond self-interest. This Greater Good that attains bliss is called mythology. Mythologist Joseph Campbell states that: “Wherever you are - if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”2 (Campbell and Moyers 1988:113)
Myths are stories designed to instruct and uplift the listener and storyteller. We are commonly used to thinking of myth as meaning lie. But the importance of the myth has for centuries been its inspirational or instructional value. For example, ancient Greece was rich in myth. We can hear the stories of Odysseus, Hercules as well as Jason and the Argonauts, and still find qualities and lessons that inspire us. Modern psychology has proven to benefit from the mythological format. (In diagnosing Oedipus complex, schizophrenia, and forming the archetypal tragic plot.) In each case, psychologically or interpersonally, these myths are dramas that are goal-oriented and instructional. As long as you have that inner power, power sharing becomes a matter of seeking external power sources, and negotiating.
Sources of power come from people who wield influence, or groups of people who have influence. These are present in goal-oriented power structures, namely hierarchies, and determined by who has access to the top of the hierarchy. People can increase power by using skills to get up the hierarchy, or by arranging coalitions of shared power, or gathering allies to obtain their goals. Successful power sharing mythological hierarchies interpersonally include King Arthur and his knights, or even Batman and Robin. In the aphorism of J.W. von Goethe quoted in Benjamin Jowett’s The Dialogues of Plato: “He is dead in this world who has no belief in another.”3 (Goethe 1832/Jowett 1937:182) Power needs to be divided and shared if it is to be set on a path.
Often it is necessary to reform these power negotiations and to rename them. For example, instead of being in a battle with an enemy, think of dancing with a partner, and cooperating. War is not the only power metaphor. In fact, it is a bad one for power sharing, because it is based on absolute ideology, which is an abstraction of the mind. As Mark Juergensmeyer stated in his textbook Terror in the Mind of God: the global rise of religious violence: "A satanic enemy cannot be transformed. It can only be destroyed."4 (Juergensmeyer 2000:220) The previous quote would be a warning to those who would use the war metaphor. If you believe you are in a war, then war is bound to follow from it. Another way to reexamine the problem is to remember what Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Human life is more precious than any ideology, any doctrine...[I]f you have an ideology, and stick to it thinking it is absolute truth, you can kill millions.”5 (Nepstad 2004:268)
The mention of Thich Nhat Hanh brings me to the concept of mindfulness. As he is quoted in the textbook Bridges not walls: a book about interpersonal communication: “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”6 (Shafir 2009:219) Rebecca Shafir has also called mindfulness one-pointedness; it is the ability to concentrate and be in the moment. This seems to abolish the notion of attaining goals, but it does not, because the goal will emerge from the communication itself. Without the ability to listen, dialogue (and so interpersonal communication) becomes powerless. It is important to focus your intention on the collaborative trajectory of power: power is always creating something and always in dynamic play, it can only be noticed and given direction. The creative and dynamic play of power means that power is productive and formless. It takes shape in things. It can result in the production of order and reality, including hierarchical authority. It even extends the body. To quote Foucault in Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison: “We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals.’ In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.”7 (Foucault 1974/Sheridan 1977:194) It is through power that the individual creates knowledge for himself or herself, discovers truth and the realm of objects. Only when two parties seek to harm their opposites, cling to ideology, or otherwise repress another’s voice is power a negative instrument. Nietzsche’s twin abysses are always staring each other down. The point is to fight back against the abyss. But, in the process do not become what you are fighting against. This is what I mean when I talk about power sharing. All communication is in essence a power struggle, or a sharing of power. It is not limited to self-disclosure. Once you grasp the formlessness and one-pointedness of power, your interpersonal skills will become more powerful. As it was put by semanticist S.I. Hiyakawa in the context of conversation: “It is the togetherness of the talking, then, is the most important element on social conversation; the subject matter is only secondary.”8 (Hiyakawa 1939/Hiyakawa 1992:58) Powerful people make powerful relationships. In Goethe’s Faust, this notion is explored quite explicitly when Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for love. By following the power of love, a power evil cannot understand, Faust overcomes the Devil’s bargain. It is his following of bliss that makes him stronger than the Devil. The Devil is: “part of that power that which would do evil ever more, and yet creates the good.”9 (Goethe 1832/Kaufmann 1963: 158) In conclusion, power is a creative force that makes things happen and frames reality. As such, it is the basis of all communication, and power sharing is the essence of the interpersonal. Power can be pushed toward something, and pushed away from something. Thus, powerful people set their own paths, and then pursue them. The intention of the power will attract the kinds of obstacles and allies in your path. Thus, communication is a power struggle. There will be many obstacles to your bliss, but if you steel yourself, surround yourself with resources, friends, and courage, nothing stands in your way. In short: there is no wrong way to communicate interpersonally. Only conflicting ways; Conflict builds courage: “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”10 (Nietzsche 1895/Kaufmann and Hollingdale 1967:xxxii)
Campbell, Joseph. Bill Moyers. (1988) (1991) The power of myth with bill boyers. Ed.: Flowers, Betty Sue: Knopf Publishing Group
Juergensmeyer, Mark. (2000) Terror in the mind of god. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press
Nepstad, S. E. (2004) Religion, violence, and peacemaking. Journal for the scientific study of religion, 3(43), 297-301
(1995) Foucault, Michel. (1975) Trans. Sheridan, A.M. (1977) Discipline and
punish: the birth of the prison 2nd edition. Ed: Rainbow, Paul. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Inc.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1808) Trans. Kaufmann, Walter. (1963) Goethe’s Faust. Chicago: Chicago University Press
(1992) Hiyakawa, S.I. (1939) Language in thought and action 5th Edition. Hiyakawa, S.I. Ed: Hiyakawa, A.R. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, Brace, and Company
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1900) Trans. Kaufmann, Walter and Hollingdale, R.J. (1967)
The will to power: a new translation by walter kaufmann and r.j. hollingdale.
. Chicago: Chicago University Press