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How You Can Gain Power By Giving It Up (And Building Empathy)

Recently I read Daniel H. Pink's excellent book "To Sell Is Human" in which he extolls the virtues of what he calls "attunement" - by which he means empathy in the broad sense of knowing how another person is feeling but also how they are thinking (i.e. the ability to take their perspective).

He describes a fascinating research finding, that power and perspective-taking seem to show an inverse relationship - that is, the more power you have in your interactions with others, the less likely it is that you'll see the other's perspective - and vice versa. Is that a good thing? Wouldn't we all prefer power to having to empathise all the time?

It depends how you define power. It seems to me that it's power in the sense of using force, exerting your will, that is inverse to perspective taking. But what about influence? Pink's book is really about how we move others, or persuade others or even inspire others, to make an exchange which is in both their interest and ours. (Pink calls this non-sales selling.) An example might be teaching others about the harmful consequences of environmental pollution, so that they change their future behaviour and we all benefit from a cleaner environment. No money is involved, and no force.

The point is, you're going to be much more effective in moving others if you can take their perspective, empathise with them, understand their thoughts and feelings. The notion that you can gain power by giving up power means that when you give up trying to manipulate, cajole and force people to do what you want, and instead step into their shoes - empathise and appreciate their perspective - you can gain influence because you can see how to invite them to act in their own interests as well as yours (i.e. find a win-win).

It strikes me that we can tranfer this idea from inter-personal dynamics to intra-personal dynamics. We're often faced with challenges that involve moving our own mind to do something that it seems apparently unwilling or unable to do. Some examples are:

  • relaxing in the face of stress
  • getting to sleep at night when the mind is restless or agitated
  • concentrating when the mind keeps wandering off into distraction.

In situations like these, it's tempting to use "force" or "will-power". But often this just makes things worse. In Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), people use the metaphor of quicksand to characterise these situations, and it's fitting. Quicksand-type situations are remarkably common.

A better strategy is to give up trying to force and instead go in for some "non-sales selling" - trying to move ourselves to change.

In my work with clients I start with the idea that there is a part of the mind, that's not the thinking, willing mind, which I often call "body intelligence". It already knows how to do things like relax, fall asleep, and concentrate effectively.

In my online course (stress management skills training with biofeedback and mindfulness) I talk about five themes for accessing the resources of the "body intelligence" other than will-power:

  1. Sensitivity - when we mindfully pay attention to our senses, we can tune in to the messages and information we're getting all the time from our "body intelligence", and we can refine our sensitivity. Having self-awareness is a pre-condition for having conscious choice.
  2. Pleasure & comfort - when the body intelligence does things well it gives us feelings and sensations of pleasure. We need to be open to pleasure, and encourage it, but not grasp after it, and similarly not struggle and fight against unpleasant feelings. Pleasurable feelings are the body's feedback.
  3. Trust and encouragement - we need to trust this other part, and invite the response we want, rather than demand it or try to force it.
  4. Imagination and play - when we imagine what it would be like if ... , then the body intelligence automatically creates some of the feeling.  That's how we know not to look forward to our dental appointments and to look forward to our holidays instead. When we do, we get some of the feeling here and now.
  5. Attention - how we pay attention is key. Narrow, over-focused attention can often help to set up the quicksand dynamic.

The quicksand dynamic comes up a lot in biofeedback work as well. I teach clients how to work with these five themes, first to learn influence their own physiology (via biofeedback), and ultimately in the quicksand contexts of their lives.

My online vidoe course (stress mangement skills training with biofeedback and mindfulness) is included for people who invest in my biofeedback rental programmes which you can read more about here.

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