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On Power Keeping Versus Power Leaking

May 09, 2022

By Christine Carron

I was teaching a class on how to receive critiques like a pro. I spent thirty minutes outlining the parts of ourselves that are at play when we receive feedback. In that mix, of course, is our inner power. That even as we open ourselves to feedback, we must stay connected to a sense of stewardship over our work. When we do so, when we are able to listen with both humble openness and confident responsibility, receiving feedback becomes less fraught. 

Folks were getting it, and I was psyched. I’m always happy to help writers feel less topsy-turvy in critique situations. I wrapped up the main discussion, and we moved to question and answer time. One of the writers asked me a question related to critique groups. 

Slightly off topic, but I rolled with it. She explained that she and another writer in the critique group were not happy with some of the dynamics within their current critique group and had been discussing the idea of leaving that group and starting their own. “Is it okay if we do that?"

Transfer of Power

You see it, right? You see what happened? She handed a whole lot of her power to me, a person she didn’t know from boo less than an hour earlier. Looking to me for permission to exit or not exit a situation. 

Now, of course, I understand she was looking for reassurance, which I gave her. Along with a suggestion that she clarify her specific concerns and then discuss those with her critique group before making a decision. It was a solid answer. 

However, I wish I could also tell you I pointed out that she could apply the same principles we’d just discussed about inner power to her decision to stay with or leave the critique group. That, in the end, my opinion on if it was okay to leave or not paled in relative importance to her own assessment of what was right for her in that situation. 

But I didn’t. I didn’t even fully catch the power transfer myself until after the class was over and I was doing my normal post-class assessment: What worked well; What I could do more effectively next time. I had felt a little uncomfortable with her question in the moment but at the time chalked it up to being surprised by the topic. 

Once I had time to reflect on the exchange though, wowza, did the power transfer quality of that writer’s question really land with me. I was able to see that my intuitive discomfort was caused by the unconscious question beneath her question, which basically was: Can I make you responsible for this decision in case it turns out badly?

For me, this was a massive aha moment. Questions I had asked in the past flashed through my head. So many times I had asked questions in a similar manner. Asking for help in ways that inadvertently undercut my power, my responsibility.

With crystal clarity, I saw how potent questions are from a power dynamic perspective. Or more precisely, how potent question phrasing is from a power dynamic perspective. That the way we word our questions will either help us keep our power, or it will most definitely help us leak our power. 

Once I saw the pattern, I couldn’t unsee it.

Question Comparison

Here are three examples highlighting the difference between the two types of questions with a short commentary after each example. 

Power-Leaking Question: Is it okay if I leave my critique group?

Power-Keeping Possibilities: 

  • I want to leave my critique group. Do you have suggestions on how I can do that in a way that minimizes hurt feelings or backlash?
  • I’m not happy with the dynamics in my critique group and am even considering leaving. I’m not sure how to bring up my concerns. Do you have any tips for discussing difficult topics? 
  • I want to leave my critique group and am dreading the drama. Will you give me a pep talk, a little reassurance? 

Commentary: My read of the writer that day was that she knew she wanted to be done with the current critique group, suspected it would cause conflict, and she wasn’t comfortable with that part of the equation yet. But asking permission as a way to validate a writing or writerly adventure decision we’re not sure of or not comfortable with yet is power-leaking. Power-keeping questions invite more data, different perspectives, and new possibilities, but keep the final decision (the permission) firmly with ourselves. 

- - - - - 

Power-Leaking Question: Do you like my manuscript? (or, Is this any good?)

Power-Keeping Possibilities: 

  • (General) How do you think I could make the manuscript stronger? 
  • (More Specific) How could I utilize setting more effectively?; Do you think the conflict between Character X and Character Y is working?; Is the plot dragging in the middle for you?; etc.
  • (Only for Your Trusted Circle) I’m feeling vulnerable about my writing today. I want and need a confidence boost. Will you give me some kudos on what I’ve done well in this manuscript?

Commentary: The first two power-keeping possibilities in this example show how we can focus and direct feedback. The last possibility demonstrates how we can cleanly ask for support when we need it. Definitely note though the phrase “Only for your trusted circle.” A part of power-keeping when we ask for emotional support is to smartly make those requests to individuals who have earned our trust. Think Brené Brown’s marble jar friends

- - - - - 

Power-leaking question: Should I cut this scene? 

Power-Keeping Possibilities: 

  • Which parts of this scene do you think are working? Which parts are not?
  • What criteria do you use when you are deciding to keep a scene or cut it?

Commentary: Pretty much any question that starts with “Should I” is a power-leaking question. “Should I” questions energetically give decision-making responsibility to someone else. Power-keeping phrasing invites input but affirms that you are the final arbiter around your creative work and your writerly adventure. 

The Upside

Did these examples help you see the distinction? Feel the difference that question phrasing can have in context of the responses we’ll get, and in how we’ll experience the interaction within ourselves? 

Every time we stop ourselves from using power-leaking phrasing and instead choose power-keeping phrasing for our questions, we tend the flame of our inner power, of our self confidence. When that flame is burning steady and bright, and we remain self-led even as we seek input from others, it’s not just receiving critiques that becomes less fraught, the entire writing adventure becomes less fraught. 

Pretty nice upside, right?


The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week

  • Post-in-Action Prompt: Over the next week, pay attention to your question phrasing (related to your writerly work or not.) See if you can identify when you use power-leaking phrasing and when you use power-keeping phrasing. Note: Be curious and have fun in this endeavor. 
  • Scene Prompt: Write a scene where your character asks a power-leaking question to someone who is not as trustworthy/on their side as your character hopes they will be. 
  • Journaling Prompt: Does this comparison of question phrasing hold up in relation to your own experience? Have you asked power-leaking questions on the writerly adventure in the past? See if you can return to a couple of those situations. Did you feel less confident, less empowered at those times? How about when you asked power-keeping questions. More confident? 
  • Connection Prompt: Connect with your writerly peeps and discuss if the distinction between power-leaking and power-keeping questions resonate with them. 
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