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Owning our power

I like travelling by train. I find it brilliant for writing, doing emails, reading, etc. However, for it to work for me, I have realised that I need to stick to one golden rule, which is not to count on being able to use the time productively. As soon as I count on using my […]
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I like travelling by train. I find it brilliant for writing, doing emails, reading, etc. However, for it to work for me, I have realised that I need to stick to one golden rule, which is not to count on being able to use the time productively. As soon as I count on using my train time to meet a particular need, I become a hostage to fortune – either the train is delayed or I can’t get a seat or something else goes wrong. More interestingly, when I get onto a train knowing that I absolutely have to get something done on the journey, I find I am already more anxious, more easily knocked off centre and therefore less resilient to any minor mishaps the world throws at me so I create a self-fulfilling prophesy that works against me. Definitely some lessons to be learned around attachment for me.

A few months ago I took a train and broke my golden rule. I had about an hour to write a short paper that needed careful crafting so I bought a first class ticket in order to buy myself some space and some quiet. As luck would have it, I got what I paid for and I got stuck into my work. But the paper was trickier to write than I had anticipated and progress was slow. About 40 minutes into the hour I was starting to feel the pressure. At which point into the carriage walked a very jovial man with a clattering drinks trolley. As he proceeded down the long carriage he exchanged cheery banter with each and every passenger. I gritted my teeth and tried to concentrate on my work. Every time I half-formed a sentence in my mind the man would say something that would break my train of thought. By the time he reached my end of the carriage I wasn’t sure whether to bang my head against the window or look for a pillow to hide beneath.

“Good morning sir and how are we today?” beamed the man, his trolley giving an extra loud rattle for good measure. I glanced up at him unsmilingly (and if I am honest in a way that I hoped was ‘withering’).

“Nothing for me, thanks,” I replied flatly without interrupting my typing. I looked down at my laptop while the man hovered for a moment then moved on and into the next carriage.

Over the 15 or so minutes that followed, I persisted with my typing, but my mind was now no longer on it. I kept returning to that encounter. At first my thoughts were self-righteous. (‘How dare he interrupt my important work? He should be more sensitive to people’s needs’, etc.) Then I started to feel guilty, as my empathy returned. (‘He was only trying to be friendly and probably gets a great deal of satisfaction out of these brief exchanges with people. Who am I to deny him this?’)

I pondered for a while on these apparently incompatible truths. I thought about the Drama Triangle model in which people act out a psychological ‘game’ playing the roles of Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim.[1] Certainly this seemed to characterise part the encounter. I was feeling victimised by my circumstances and by the ‘annoying man’. He may have come into the encounter hoping to rescue me (from my bad mood) and may have left it feeling a victim of my rudeness, making me a persecutor. I wonder, also, whether he had some (unconscious?) sense that he was needling me, which would have made him a persecutor too. Did he even enjoy it? (Rescuing and Persecution are sometimes closer cousins than we comfortably acknowledge).

The model says that the way out of the Drama Triangle game is to stop playing and behave like an adult. In this case that would have meant starting to own my anxiety and to take responsibility for being behind with a piece of important work, and then to do something constructive about it.

Reflecting on all this got me thinking about power. It made me wonder about who had the power in this relationship. On the one hand, I was a businessman in a first class carriage being unfriendly to a man with a trolley selling drinks. So I had the power that goes with status, and I used it rather brutally, and felt shabby as a result. But when I thought further about the state of mind I’d been, I realised I had felt anything but powerful at the time.

Talking about this encounter later, what dawned on me is that the issue may not be whether or not we have power, but whether we recognise the power we have. I tend to be more in touch with a sense of what is not in my power than what is. So in this encounter I was more connected to my anxiety and helplessness over the paper than I was to the choice I had (for example) to ask for more time or prioritise differently. Similarly the man on the train had a great deal of power to get under my skin, which he used to great effect, though I suspect he would not have recognised this in the moment.

This thought connected me to some of my clients’ situations. I remember the MD of a small division in an organisation telling me he was utterly powerless because his division was not the largest or most profitable.

I pointed out that the several hundred people who reported to him may have seen things differently. By not owning the power he had, he risked inadvertently abusing it. This makes sense for me of that quote attributed (wrongly I believe) to Nelson Mandela, which says that our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate but that we are powerful beyond measure. I still see that man on the train from time to time. Sometimes I even buy a cup of coffee. And is it my imagination, or is he becoming less annoying?

[1] See


James Lawther: Interesting post, it would be fascinating to know what the man with the trolly thought of the whole interaction:
- Was he upset?
- Did he laugh at you behind your back?
- Would he even remember
Amazing what goes on in our heads

Mayvin Ltd
Hi James Isn't it though? Really good questions, and probably some learning there for both of us if I were to find a (socially acceptable!) way to ask him. Thanks for the comments! Martin

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