The Language of Empowerment

My car was stolen last Monday.

Since then, it’s been an endless procession of paperwork, backtracking to do paperwork I didn’t know of, and dealing with people who just don’t know.

I get it. In my day job, I deal with people who just don’t know. When they come to me, I help them to understand the big picture so they are informed and can make their own decisions in the future. I help empower people. Because I do this, people are more likely to return to me and tell their friends about me.

It’s Day Ten since my car was stolen which means that today, if my vehicle hasn’t yet been recovered, the insurance company pays me out for the loss of my vehicle. While this knowledge is good, it’s all the other stuff in between that has me in a state of collapse. It’s been ten days of being drained, feeling fried, and just wanting to hibernate under my blankets with a cup of tea and a book of fluffy fiction.

I thought I felt drained because I’d lost my freedom. Having a vehicle, I find, is quite empowering and it’s something that I’d begun to take for granted. It’s a lovely thing just to hop in and drive five minutes to pick up some odd groceries. In my recent past, I’d voluntarily gone several years without a vehicle. It takes a bit of planning to navigate life without a vehicle. This loss of freedom hit me hard, but it was a succession of events this week that demonstrated it wasn’t the loss of my vehicle that had me feeling disempowered, it was the people I encountered.



For instance, I learned that the Carfax reports generated by and are different. I also learned that used car dealerships are required to give prospective customers access to the Carfax reports. I learned all this because I was subtly mocked by a used car dealer because I’d bought my own Carfax reports and inadvertently bought the wrong ones. He asked me several times what I’d paid. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to answer; it was enough to know that I needn’t have paid. He also asked the name of the other dealership that hadn’t volunteered a Carfax report of a car I’d been investigating.

The events of this day replayed over and over in my mind. They bugged me.

Two days later I encountered a registry person who allowed me to feel empowered — he gave me information so that I could make my own decision. This interaction showed me why I was so drained. And it showed me the language of empowerment.

It is very easy to be seduced into a feeling of superiority because you have information other people want. It’s very easy to dangle pieces of information in front of them, to make them jump through hoops and do amusing tricks to get the rest of the information. It’s very easy to withhold information because the person didn’t ask the right question.

As a highly-sensitive person, I can feel when a person is disempowered or empowered. I can also feel when I have a hand in that disempowerment or empowerment. When I disempower people, I feel a kind of ‘dirty’ power. It has a gritty icky feeling and I don’t feel good about myself. When you are seduced by feeling superior over another, ‘dirty’ power is what you get. Yes, knowledge is power, but engagement is even more powerful. When I help someone become empowered, I’ll glow with pride and float for days. Likely, so will the other person. Empowerment is a win-win.

In academia, I see this quite a bit: the low self-worth and external pressures that power Imposter Syndrome then give rise to passive-aggressive superiority behaviour that individuals engage to try to regain some of their power. The myth of the Ivory Tower is a great example of hoarding and withholding information to power a sense of superiority.

Through my experiences these past few weeks and years in academia, I’ve discovered a few ways to help empower people and have everyone come out winning:

  1. Give people all the information they ask for AND MORE. Be proactive. Anticipate the future actions a person may take and help them prepare for those future events.
  2. Give them the context or big picture of what’s going on and WHY they are being asked to do something. Allowing a person to understand their situation gives them the freedom to then address the situation in a way that suits them. It allows them to make their own informed decisions.
  3. Do NOT be prescriptive and dictate a method of action for the person unless you are outlining a process. If you are outlining a process, outline the ENTIRE process so that the person understands WHY they need to do something.
  4. Ask questions and be genuinely curious. Engage the other person and respect their point of view. Try to understand why the person made the decisions they did.
  5. Do NOT dig for answers. Sometimes the other person doesn’t have them. Digging for answers puts the other person on the spot and makes them feel inferior or insignificant. Sometimes, too, the other person just needs time to find their own answers.
  6. Do NOT point out everything the person did wrong. This is demoralizing and is only making you feel superficially superior (that ‘dirty’ power I mention above). At the time, the person likely either didn’t know how to do something or thought what they were doing was right. They likely had their own line of logic. Instead, focus on outlining what would have been better. Focus on what they did well and how they may leverage what they did well into other areas to do well. Turn the situation into an opportunity for learning instead of an opportunity to showcase every way the person screwed-up.
  7. Use explicit clear language. Do not imply. People can only take action when they know exactly what isn’t working and what is.

Today, I am taking a day to refuel: walking under my own steam, a trip to the grocery store where I will likely use the self-checkout, and reflecting on other ways I help empower others and, thus, myself. Because, as I also learned this week, disempowerment takes two. I had a hand in my own disempowerment because I allowed it to happen. Empowerment is also a participation event. Will I regain my power by helping others gain theirs? Or, will this look like something else?

Stay tuned!

Further Reading

The Feminine Principle – The Dynamics of Disempowerment

MyStory – The Importance of Language in Personal Empowerment

AmericanExpress – The 9 Most Demoralizing Things You Can Say to Employees

Medium – A Disempowerment Checklist


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