Empowering Others through Listening and Accepting

By Anne McMullin Peffer

Some members of our community know a lot about what it’s like to live without empowerment. These people understand how difficult it is to continually be on the receiving end of others’ decisions, to not have the ability or freedom to make enough money to provide for themselves, to live without the capacity to get themselves out of bad situations, and/or to know that if others found out about their beliefs, sexual attractions, sexual orientations or sexual or gender identities that their voices would likely be dismissed and devalued, their feelings discredited and that they could be retaliated against.

Other members of our community are less familiar with what it’s like to live without empowerment. These people tend to include those who have influence and decision-making authority. They generally have access to money and the ability to earn enough or more than they need. They have the capacity to control where they live, what they do and with whom they associate. They enjoy stature in their communities and the sense of self-worth and value that accompanies it. They don’t generally feel concerned that some aspect of their beliefs, identity or orientation might be cause for others to reject or exclude them if it were found out.

Empowerment isn’t usually an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Most of us have some empowerment. A few of us, however, like children who have been rejected by their families and communities, have no empowerment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the most influential among us have full empowerment.

Living without empowerment can feel shaky and precarious; living with empowerment feels solid and productive. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to draw the conclusion that it is far preferable to live with more empowerment than it is to live with less empowerment. We all would like, I think, to be like the fully empowered and have control over our own lives and decisions and to be free to identify, believe and behave as we want without fearing that others might reject or exclude us if they don’t like who we are or what we do. If this is true, actions that empower others have incredible potential to alleviate suffering and improve lives.

The problem is that the empowered don’t necessarily fully recognize or comprehend the insecurity of the position of the dis-empowered. In their own solidity, they underestimate the precarious and sometimes even traumatic nature of being stuck in positions one does not have the ability to control, or the fear that one will be rejected if others find out about aspects of the self that are fundamental to one’s life experiences or self-identity. And because the empowered are not fully aware of the perilous position of the dis-empowered, they often, in their own sense of self-beneficence, do not see the value of empowering those beneath them.

Rather, they see themselves as serving those with less power by trying to teach them or convince them to accept the same understanding of the world that they themselves believe to be reality. The reality of the dis-empowered is so foreign to the empowered, however, that the empowered don’t often recognize that the concepts they seek to instill aren’t always applicable or helpful to their audience. They speak of solutions that work for the empowered rather than the dis-empowered; their advice is often best suited for those who are in their own positions rather than for those who have little influence or ability to control their own lives. As a result, their words are often more destructive than healing. What the dis-empowered need is not to be taught by the empowered the values the empowered believe need to be shared, but to have their own positions acknowledged, their own voices accepted and amplified, and their own decisions and identities validated so that they can experience empowerment for themselves.

The question then becomes: If empowering others is beneficial, what specific actions are empowering and healing and what specific actions dis-empowering and destructive?

Specific actions that are inherently empowering and healing:

  1. Listening to other people
  2. Accepting other people, even when we disagree
  3. Allowing other people self-determination

Specific actions that are inherently dis-empowering and destructive:

  1. Perpetually trying to change other people to make them more like oneself
  2. Rejecting people who are different than oneself by refusing to engage in respectful, productive discussions indicating to them that that their perspectives are so worthless that there is no value in listening
  3. Sending the message that there is one right decision for everyone and that those who don’t accept it are, simply put, wrong

In a nutshell, real service is in listening and accepting, not in teaching and trying to convince or change. Real service is in coming to the table to hear what others have to say and to communicate that regardless of what that might be, friendships will not be lost. Real service is in seeking gain understanding, empathizing, and loving regardless of others’ life decisions and self-identities.

It is also important to acknowledge that real service does not need to be about taking on beliefs one disagrees with. It does not need to be about changing oneself or compromising one’s own values. One can find self-empowerment at the same time one empowers others. It is possible to accept the self and know that one’s own truth is valid without trying to dis-empower others by attempting to force them to accept it too.

Please consider attending Circling the Wagons for the purpose of coming together to listen and gain a greater understanding. We hope to create an environment where real service and empowerment happens because people are listened to, accepted and allowed self-determination regardless.

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