In my experience, the words power and control are often used interchangeably. For example: “He has the power to fire me.” Or “Money is power.” “She controls my life; I’m powerless.”
We also use the word “power” (but not “control”) to refer to a person with inner power like Gandhi or Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. And we conflate power and control when we talk of “political power” or a “powerful CEO.”
I want to clarify what I see as distinctive qualities indicated by these words. They are essentially different things. I don’t even think of them like apples and oranges, which are both fruits. They are more like rocks and animals — completely different types or categories.
Because I do not see others making these distinctions in my everyday conversation and reading, I want to be clear that I am defining these terms in a narrow sense to help bring clarity in my own mind and in discussion with others.
I use the word power to indicate the intrinsic capacity to make a choice in alignment with my own values. Power is a need. We all have power, we all make choices, sometimes unconsciously and/or without taking responsibility for those choices. We can “give away” our power by denying responsibility for our choices and going along with the choices of others. Holding onto our own power is essential in the practice of NVC. This involves learning to take complete responsibility for our own choices. “The buck stops here,” Harry Truman said.
Control is a strategy. Often when we are ferreting out needs, we arrive at “wanting to be in control” of a situation. If we dig deeply enough, we may find the place where we want to be in control of every situation, all the time. “If only everyone behaved in the way I believe they should behave…” or “understood that…then everything would finally be alright!”
A story from Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication cites the diary of a woman imprisoned in a concentration camp to illustrate the difference between power and control:
“I am not easily frightened. Not because I am brave but because I know that I am dealing with human beings, and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does. And that was the real import of this morning: not that a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me, but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and would have liked to ask ‘did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?’ Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen and weak. I should have liked to start treating him there and then, for I know that pitiful young men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on mankind.”
— Etty Hillesum: A Diary (Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg, second edition, p2)
Etty Hillesum does not have control over the situation she is in or the young Gestapo officer. She does, however, hold onto her power. The young officer, on the other hand, appears to be in control of the situation (he has the gun), but I wonder if he was saying, years later, “I had to do it.” This excuse is a clear indication of having given away one’s power. Powerful people choose a response and take responsibility for it. They may not have control over the consequences (which can be severe) and they do not use the excuse of “I had to” or “they made me do it.” Etty actually goes beyond a simple choice — she embodies compassion in her response. She has arrived at the stage of unconscious competence in automatically making choices in alignment with her values or what you might call her ‘truest self.” This is the result of practice and leads to another quality that is important in the discussion of power and control: strength.
Strength is a measure of the ability and skill one has developed to consciously control (or wield) one’s innate power — just like someone who lifts weights and exercises can develop the strength to lift more and more weight. With practice one develops the strength to make more and more conscious choices, and to face more challenging or difficult choices without losing one’s “center” or “self” or compromising one’s values. Eventually, we may arrive at a state where we automatically respond without even having to think about it, like Etty when she felt compassion for the guard. This might be called mastery, embodiment or unconscious competence. Strength refers to the learned, earned and developed capacity to make conscious or unconscious choices in alignment with our values; it may or may not lead to the ability and authority to control something or inspire someone else.
Choice is something we cannot avoid. To choose not to act is a choice just as choosing a specific action is a choice. We make our choices consciously and/or unconsciously.
“Power,” “strength,” or “control” are value-neutral terms. These are capacities which can be developed (or made conscious) with practice (just like muscles can be developed with exercise and training) and can be used for whatever the person chooses to use them for. They develop independently of cognitive, intellectual, social, moral, emotional or other developmental lines.
In NVC, we say that the choice to use power with others instead of power under (giving in) * or power over (trying to control) * other people is a core value. The protective use of force is the use of control to protect universal needs when necessary. I use these definitions to refer specifically to our relationships with one another as human beings. I personally consider both “power under” and “power over” to be strategies, and therefore forms of control, not power. “Power with” can refer to either the sharing of authentic power (we freely make choices together to serve the needs of all) or “control with” (we create strategies to meet needs). We can use both power and control with one another in alignment with the intention of NVC.
* A note about control: While ideally one uses “power with” other human beings, having the ability and authority to control one’s environment and the circumstances of one’s own life is an important capacity. Again, these are value-neutral capabilities. We all want a certain amount of control in our lives. We would all agree that Ette Hillesum had the right (authority) to control the circumstances of her life; that she did not have the ability to do so during the Second World War resulted in the loss of her life. Legally, morally and ethically, most of us would agree that usurping her authority and ability to be in control of her life circumstances did not meet universal human needs and was not in accord with the values most of us would choose for ourselves. (We might simply say “that’s wrong!”) Her power, however, remained intact — and she had the strength (learned and earned through practice and training) to hold onto her power to embody her highest ideals in devastating circumstances.