A mailing list in which I participate is discussing empowerment. As usually happens in discussions of empowerment, several people claimed that it is impossible for one person to empower another, that all you can do is to disempower them, to prevent them from using the power they have.

I believe it is possible for one person to empower another. In my mind, to empower a person means to connect the person with a source of power.

What do I mean by power? Power is the ability to create value. Yes, I know there are other kinds of power, such as the ability to destroy, whether intentionally or — as in the famous (and untrue) story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow — inadvertently. But when we talk about empowerment, we are almost always talking about the power to do something positive.

Given those definitions, you can empower people by connecting them with sources of ability to create value.

For an example what I mean by empowerment, see this story about how I worked with Susan, the HR Director at a large company, to resolve resistance. I believe that I empowered Susan. I connected her with a source of power, with a source of ability to create value: her ability to listen with empathy. Now, Susan already had that ability, and plenty of it. But, for some reason, she had not been using her considerable ability. She had not yet recognized that listening with empathy could be a source of great power as she interacted with the "resisters." I simply reminded her of the power that she already had. She knew what to do from there, and she succeeded spectacularly. My questions connected Susan to her own power. My questions empowered her.

Now, suppose that Susan, upon hearing my questions, had said, "Dale, that's nuts," and walked away. Would my questions still have been empowering? Is it empowering to offer a source of power, even if the person chooses not to use it? I don't think so. That sets the bar too low. If Susan had chosen not to use her considerable empathy, or if she had listened with empathy, and yet had seen no valuable results, who's to say that that "source of power" had any power in it at all? The true mark of empowerment is the value that people create with the sources of power they are offered.

Perhaps the people who claim that it is impossible for one person to empower another define empower differently than I do. According to the usage notes at dictionary.com, empower originally had a very restricted meaning: "to invest with authority, authorize." That kind of empowerment connects people to sources of power that they previously were prevented from accessing. In other words, it simply reverses earlier disempowerment.

Empowerment seems to be a tricky subject. Conversations about empowerment (including this one?) often fizzle without creating much value for anyone. So most of the time, rather than talk about empowerment, I simply do what I can to connect people with sources of power. I especially enjoy interactions like the one with Susan, interactions in which I am able connect people with the abundant power that is already inside them.

Experiment: During the next week, make a list of every source of power that you use. This list is a source of power for you. In the future, when you become stuck, review the list, looking for sources of power that you may have forgotten were available.

Experiment: Review your sources of power. What kinds of sources are abundantly present in your list? What kinds are rare or missing from your list? How could you acquire those kinds of power?

Experiment: During the next week, notice every time that you connect another person to a source of power. What kinds of power do you typically offer? What kinds would you like to offer more often, if only people knew you had them to offer?