On understanding power: reflections from “Power Mapping for Campaigners”

Will Nicholson from the Losing Control Advisory Council took part in a workshop “Power Mapping for Campaigners” hosted by The Social Change Agency. 

This blog shares Will’s person reflections on understanding power and how it is relational and interconnected.

To truly understand power I now realise you need to consider and connect many aspects.

I was recently fortunate enough to attend a Power Mapping for Campaigners workshop run by the Social Change Agency which I attended on behalf of the Losing Control Network.

In truth, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the workshop or what I was specifically trying to gain, other than a curiosity to learn more about power and understand how it can accelerate and/or hinder social change.

What I’ve learnt is that power is a fascinating topic with many facets. On the surface it can appear quite simple – either you have it or you don’t! If you have it, do you use it for the good of others or for your own gain? If you don’t, how do you get it?! Simple!

Not quite! To truly understand power I now realise you need to consider and connect many aspects. Who has it and where does it reside in a system? What are the power relationships between you and your cause and the key stakeholders (influencers, decision-makers, organised groups and unorganised social groups) that are connected to it? What generates power? Are their hidden sources of power that could advance your cause or is hindering it without you knowing? How do people use it, how does it affect you and your cause? And a particular one for us losing control folk, how do you share it?!

Wow! Lots to consider and it can feel very daunting! How on earth do I answer all those questions and make any sense of them? 

However, not to worry! The good news is that you probably have most of the information in your head or you’ll know how to find it relatively easily. It is also likely that you are already working in a way that takes a number of these points into consideration. You will know who most of your stakeholders are and what their position is and you’ll have strategies and tools in place to try and influence them.

What I learnt at the workshop was how to use a power analysis matrix which helps you organise this information in a simple and effective way. I won’t go into all the details here as it’s something you’ll need to discover for yourself on the course but I wanted to draw out two key points:

1. Power is relational. 

Key to understanding power is gaining a deep understanding of the relationships between all the different stakeholders and understanding the relationships between each stakeholder and the contextual factors (i.e. the major political, economic, social, technological conditions) that impact your cause. Really getting under the skin of this will help you work out the root causes of the challenges you face and understand the motivational factors that influence each of your stakeholders.

How you learn about the relational factors that influence power is something I’m very passionate about and is key to success. In the world we live in, the typical way of doing this would be to do this by yourself and perform desktop research and scouring through social media feeds etc.

However if like I am, you are passionate about a world built upon relationships, connections and collaboration then approach this task in the same way. Complete the task with others and learn through building meaningful relationships with all stakeholders, particularly those who are likely to oppose what you are trying to do. 

Not only is this more enjoyable and fulfilling, but you are also likely to understand much more about the human factors that impact change. It will also help you to be very open-minded about the solutions and simultaneously build relationships with those who you will need to mobilise to support you to affect change.

2. Framing your cause or issue

Power is significantly affected by how you frame your cause or issue. Often those that control the narrative, control how people respond or engage with it. If you frame an issue too narrowly, you could end up disengaging some stakeholders not directly affected by your cause. If you frame around a problem or issue you may create a negative discourse around your cause that could impact your power to change. 

As an example, I’ve been working a lot with organisations supporting mental health. A typical framing of it is “1 in 4 people are affected by a mental ill-health condition and we need to do more to support them.” But what if we could frame this as “mental health is something everyone has, just as everyone has physical health. And just like physical health, there is more we can all do to support our own mental health and help others who are more affected than us…”

Above all, be the change you want to see.

I have become increasingly interested in language and how important it is in framing the social change you want to see. If the social change you want to see is a positive world where supporting causes beyond our own, collaboration, inclusion, respect and kindness is the norm then it’s key to use language that reflects this in framing your cause. 

In conclusion, I’ve learnt a huge amount about power and the importance of understanding who holds it and how it is relational and interconnected. I’ve also learnt that understanding of power is power itself. 

Above all, be the change you want to see. If you are passionate about a world of losing control, of collaboration and relationships, about positive social change then embed these values into how you frame and approach advancing your cause.