By Lynn M. Acquafondata
Power dynamics in human relationships are unavoidable, but often go unrecognized. Since these dynamics play a large role in relational triangles, I’ve come up with the concept of the Weighted Triangle.
The Weighted Triangle takes into account the relative power of each person in a relational triangle. Sometimes the power differential is large, sometimes much more subtle. Acknowledging the factors and degrees of power can guide us in managing these power dynamics in healthy ways.
Diagramming Weighted Triangles starts with geometry. In geometry, triangles are classified by different configurations based on the size of the angles and length of the sides. Most triangles are not equilateral. In an equilateral triangle the length of the sides and the size of the angles are identical on all sides. Most human relational triangles don’t have an equal balance either.
The term Weighted Triangle conveys that there is power concentrating more heavily on one point of the triangle, which can be illustrated through the size of the angles and the length of the sides.
To diagram these power differentials, I use a metaphor of the more powerful person taking up more relational space. If each person is represented by a point on the triangle, one aspect of a power differential between people can be diagrammed by the most powerful person having a widest angle in the triangle.
In addition, a more powerful person benefits from close connections. Therefore, a second aspect of diagramming power differentials in triangles involves the length of the sides in the triangle. The most powerful person is typically closer to a person on at least one side of the triangle. This is diagrammed by having a shorter line between the two people with the closer connection.
Because multiple interrelating factors often contribute to power dynamics in relational triangles, I have added the final diagramming tool of listing power factors on each corner of the triangle.
Power Factors in Relational Systems
Power is comprised of these several factors and depends on the degree to which each factor exists and how each aspect of power dynamics relates to and interacts with the other people in the system and their power factors. These factors include:
Role in system
This includes the specific role a person plays in a system, as well as clarity of roles. The more responsibility and decision making power a person has, the more power that person has. Are these roles clear to the person in power and those around, or not? Clearer roles tend to give more power, though unclear roles can leave room for other levels of power to enter in.
This focuses on (often unconscious) power granted by one’s race, class, sex, sexual orientation, culture, education, age and more.
Perception of power
This includes self-perception as well as others’ perception of one’s power. It relates to how one acts, reacts and interacts as a result of one’s perception of power, and how others perceive those actions, reactions and interactions.
This includes the number, depth and quality of connections. How many people is each person connected to in the system? To whom is one connected to and what level of power does each person’s connections have in the system? Are the connections surface-level or do they involve emotional depth and loyalty?
Weighted Triangles at Coastal Church
The Triangles at Coastal Church introduced in previous blog articles help us understand and work with basic relational dynamics. It’s the concept of Weighted Triangles, however, that brings awareness to the many layers and complexities present in most human relationships.
All of the triangles at Coastal Church involve power dynamics. When we understand these dynamics, it shifts our understanding of what is happening.
Following the funeral of Nancy Hartwig and the announcement of her large bequest, Sam Williams, the president of the board prepares for discussion with the trustees about how to use the money she had bequeathed specifically to the Christian education program.
He is aware of how emotionally loaded this gift is. Already at the funeral he engaged cautiously in an exchange with Natalia (the chair of the Christian Education committee who advocated for getting rid of the Christian education director, Roy, in order to hire a pastor of Christian education). A second pastor could be very beneficial, but he doesn’t want to do it for the wrong reasons, and he wants to honor the wishes of the benefactor as much as possible.
Sam, 55, is also very aware of his position in the history of Coastal Church serving as the first African American chair of the board. While he is honored to serve in this position, he treads carefully, bound by the constraints of tradition and his role as the only person of color on the board.
Sam would have preferred to discuss the subject with the trustees quietly at first, coming up with a process of how to discuss the bequest before bringing the conversation to the larger church, but Natalia told him she is coming to the board meeting and wants to speak about the gift. If she follows her past pattern she will bring at least one supporter with her.
Sam wants to exert his authority as chair of the board and set aside conversation on specifics for a later meeting. He is very aware of how much power Natalia holds in the church and in the community. Natalia is used to having things go her way. The 40 year old white woman grew up in the family of founding members of Coastal Church. She is an advertising executive married to the CEO of a prominent local business.
Roy will also be present at the board meeting. Sam doesn’t know if Roy understands Natalia’s animosity towards him or how precarious that makes his position. Roy, 28, led the youth group for three years previously and connects well with young people, but he doesn’t have much church experience or savvy. He is just learning how to take on a role of authority and sometimes dictates when others expect collaboration.
Roy needs some support and mentoring, but doesn’t get it from Natalia. He was hired shortly after Pastor Amy was called. Pastor Amy gives Roy some support and mentoring which is part of what angers Natalia. This connection shakes up the dynamics of the separation between clergy and Christian Education program.
Sam decides to avoid conflict (for the moment) by setting the agenda to discuss process at the board meeting. In the meeting with the executive committee prior to the board meeting, he does not discuss his concerns about the potential for Natalia to derail the process conversation.
Here is how to diagram the weighted triangles at Coastal Church.
Natalia has the widest angle, indicating more power. No two people in this triangle are more closely connected than any others. The power factors are listed by category with +s and –s indicating clear increases or decreases of power.
Natalia still has the widest angle indicating more power, but Pastor Amy has power as well, as indicated by the angle on her side. Roy has less power as is shown by a smaller angle. Amy and Roy are more connected than any other two points on the triangle. This is indicated with a slightly shorter side between them. The power factors are listed by category with +s and –s indicating clear increases or decreases of power.
Creating Weighted Triangle diagrams helps to understand the complex layers of power in relationships. Understanding the layers of power can help us to do the deep work that can lead to systemic change that goes beyond one church or one family, and into the larger society.
Join me next week to learn more about Coastal Church as I review the many subsets of relational triangles.
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Edited by Johanna Bond