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Self Empowerment Essay

Personal empowerment is about looking at who you are and becoming more aware of yourself as a unique individual.

Personal empowerment involves developing the confidence and strength to set realistic goals and fulfil your potential. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and a range of skills that are used in everyday situations, but all too often people remain unaware of, or undervalue, their true abilities.

A person aiming for empowerment is able to take control of their life by making positive choices and setting goals.  Developing self-awareness, an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses - knowing your own limitations is key to personal empowerment.

Taking steps to set and achieve goals - both short and longer-term and developing new skills, acts to increase confidence which, in itself, is essential to self-empowerment.

‘Personal Empowerment’ and ‘Personal Development’ are two areas that overlap and interweave, it is recommended that you read this page in conjunction with our page: Personal Development.

What is Personal Empowerment?

At a basic level, the term 'empowerment' simply means 'becoming powerful'.  Building personal empowerment involves reflecting on our personal values, skills and goals and being prepared to adjust our behaviour in order to achieve our goals. Personal empowerment also means being aware that other people have their own set of values and goals which may different to ours.

Many other, more detailed, definitions exist. These usually centre on the idea that personal empowerment gives an individual the ability to:

  • Take control of their circumstances and achieve their own goals in their personal and working life.
  • Become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and therefore be better equipped to deal with problems and achieve goals.
  • Enhance the contribution they make both as an individual and as a member of a team.
  • Take opportunities to enhance personal growth and a sense of fulfilment.

Developing personal empowerment usually involves making some fundamental changes in life, which is not always an easy process. The degree of change required will differ from person to person, depending on the individual starting point.

Dimensions of Personal Empowerment

The following ‘dimensions of personal empowerment’ are based on the belief that the greater the range of coping responses an individual develops, the greater their chance of coping effectively with diverse life situations.

These dimensions are:


Self-awareness involves understanding our individual character and how we are likely to respond to situations.

This enables us to build on our positive qualities and be aware of any negative traits which may reduce our effectiveness.  Self-aware people make conscious decisions to enhance their lives whenever possible, learning from past experiences.


Values are opinions or beliefs that are important to us but of which we are not always aware.

They can be any kind of belief or perceived obligation, anything we prefer and for any reason. The reasons we may prefer one thing over another, or choose one course of action over another, may not always be obvious or known; there may be no apparent reason for our values. Nevertheless our values are important to us as individuals. In order to be self-aware it is necessary to be aware of our values, to critically examine them and to accept that our values may be different from those of others.


An individual's skills are the main resource which enables them to achieve their desired goals.

Skills can be gained through experience, practice, education and training. It is only by developing such skills that individual values can be translated into action.


Knowledge or information is necessary in the development of self-awareness and skills.

Knowing where to find appropriate information is in itself an essential skill. Without information, the choices open to people are limited, both in their personal and working lives. The internet has provided an easy way for everybody to access huge amounts of information very quickly and easily.  The problem is then centred around the quality of the information found, and the skill set is concerned with finding accurate and reliable information.


Setting goals is a means by which an individual can take charge of their life.

The process of setting a goal involves people thinking about their values and the direction that they would like their lives to follow. Choices are made through reflection followed by action. Goals should always be both specific and realistic. Setting personal goals gives us a sense of direction in life, this direction is essential to personal empowerment.

See our page: Personal Goal Setting for more information.

Language and Empowerment

Language is the main medium of human communication whether used in spoken or written form. 

The use of language, how individuals express themselves verbally and non-verbally to others, can be empowering to both themselves and the people with whom they are communicating.  Looking at how language is used is important in terms of self-empowerment and when attempting to empower other people.

The Use of Language for Personal Empowerment

In terms of personal empowerment and communication the following ideas are helpful and their use can be both self-affirming and positive:

  • Use Positive Language: 
    Research into language suggests that a person's self-image is reflected in the words that they use. For example, people who say they 'should' behave in a certain way implies passivity and can detract from them seeming to be in control and taking responsibility for their actions. Talking about yourself in a positive way, acknowledging strengths and weaknesses, can be empowering.

  • Use Active Language: 
    Use terms which imply positive action rather than making vague statements, particularly when talking about the future. For example, 'I will...' and 'I can...'.

  • Use Words to Define Your Own Space and Identity: 
    If you fail to use words to define your own space and identity then others will tend to define you and set standards by which you evaluate yourself. Furthermore, they will try to persuade you to conform to their demands. Be clear about who you are and what your values and goals are – do not let others define you.

The Use of Language for Empowering Others

In order to use language to help empower others:

  • Do not use jargon or complex terminology
    The use of jargon and complex terminology can be both alienating and dis-empowering. When working with others the use of jargon can create feelings of intimidation and inferiority. Without shared understanding of the words you use, effective and empowering communication cannot take place.  Choose words with care, which give clarity to what you are trying to express.

  • Focus on the words people use
    Mirror words people use, see our pages: Reflection and Clarification for more information. Using shared terminology appropriately can enable you appear more ‘in tune’ with the other person and what they are saying.

  • Choose positive words
    Choosing positive or active words such as 'will' or 'can' indicates that you have control in your life and is more likely to induce positive action in others. Compare the use of these words with others such as ‘might' or 'maybe' which suggest hesitancy. Using words and statements which carry responsibility are empowering as they suggest a determined rather than a passive approach.

  • Avoid criticism and negativity: 
    Criticism should always be given with extreme care and only when absolutely necessary. Once words have been spoken they cannot be easily taken back. If criticism is necessary then it can be given in a constructive way, through the use of positive and supporting words and phrases. Always attempt to cushion criticism with positive observations. Our page, Offering Constructive Criticism has lots more information.

  • Use open questions when appropriate: 
    The use of closed questions will restrict responses to 'yes' and 'no' answers. This type of question can leave people feeling powerless because there is no opportunity to explain their response. On the other hand, open questions give the person being asked the chance to explore the reasons behind their answers. Open questions encourage a person to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions and can therefore aid empowerment. Open questions can also help people to solve problems through their own devices, help them to set their own goals and work out an appropriate plan of action.

    See our pages: Questioning and Question Types for more information.

Developing Self-Empowerment

We all have opportunities to explore and develop new skills.  In order to become more empowered we can, in our interactions with others, aim to:

  • Develop trust.
  • Understand our strengths, weaknesses and limits.
  • Develop confidence and self-esteem.

Developing Trust

Developing trust can be a difficult and lengthy process.  In order to develop trust with others you may choose to:

  • Be Open:  In the sharing of information, ideas and thoughts.  When appropriate also sharing emotions, feelings and reactions.  Also aim to reciprocate appropriately, when somebody shares their emotions, thoughts or feelings with you.
  • Share and Co-operate:  Share resources and knowledge with others to help them to achieve their goals. Work together towards mutual goals.
  • Be Trustworthy:  When other people place their trust in you, do your best to provide positive outcomes.
  • Be Accepting:  Hold the values and views of others in high regard.
  • Be Supportive:  Support others when necessary but also recognise their strengths - allowing them to work towards goals without your intervention as appropriate.

In the workplace, and in any professional working relationship there are three basic components of trust:

  • Trust in the integrity and goodwill between all workers, regardless of salary or status and whether paid or unpaid.
  • Trust that all workers within an organisation share the same objectives and are open with each other about any conflicting objectives.
  • Trust in each other's competence and to do what you promise to undertake.

Trust can be broken very quickly and may never be restored to its former level. Think about the points above and try to build and maintain trusting relationships in both your personal and professional life.

Avoid the following actions that may destroy trust and have a detrimental effect on personal empowerment:

  • Making a joke at another’s expense.
  • Being judgemental about another’s behaviour, attitudes or beliefs.
  • Communicating rejection or non-acceptance, either verbally or non-verbally.

See our page on Trustworthiness and Conscientiousness for more information.

Understanding Your Strengths, Weaknesses and Limits

Becoming empowered includes knowing your own strengths and weaknesses: identifying these will enable you to work on improving your weaknesses and build on your strengths.

It is not uncommon for other people to have misjudged your strengths and weaknesses, or for you to misjudge those of others. This can lead to opportunities being limited due to the misconception of abilities. It is important, therefore, to know your own strengths and weaknesses and to communicate them clearly to others, whilst encouraging others to communicate their strengths and weaknesses to you.

In some circumstances you may feel that you face problems that are truly beyond your capabilities. In such cases you should seek help. Empowered people know their own limits and have no problems with asking for help or guidance. Self-knowledge, often referred to as self-awareness, is a strength which enables you to set personal improvement goals in order to make a more substantial contribution. The more empowered you become, the more you will be able to help others to become empowered.

See our pagePersonal SWOT Analysis for help with identifying your strengths and weaknesses.

Developing Confidence

Confidence acts as one of the greatest motivators or most powerful limitations to anyone trying to change their behaviour and become more empowered.

Most people only undertake tasks that they feel capable of doing and it takes great effort to overcome a lack of confidence in one's capabilities.  Self-empowerment involves people constantly challenging their own beliefs and what they are capable of undertaking.

See our pages on Building Confidence and Self Esteem for more information.

Personal empowerment is not a static thing that you can do once in your life.

You should view personal empowerment as ongoing personal development. As circumstances change and develop, and as we ourselves change and develop, so do our needs for development and empowerment.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Personal Development

Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.

Our eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.

Máire A. Dugan

July 2003

One View of "Empowerment"

"Empowerment" has been a common topic among mainstream mediators in the United States since 1994, when Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger's The Promise of Mediation was published. They discuss empowerment in the context of what they call a transformative approach to mediation. Focusing on interpersonal conflicts, they distinguish between this approach and a narrower "problem-solving" approach. In a transformative approach, mediators do not focus exclusively on assisting parties to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Rather:

"Power concedes nothing without demand." -- Frederick Douglass

"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." -- Paulo Freire

"I tell people to hell with charity, the only thing you'll get is what you're strong enough to get." -- Saul Alinsky

[T]ransformative mediators concentrate on empowering parties to define issues and decide settlement terms for themselves and on helping parties to better understand one another's perspective...[T]ransformative mediation helps parties recognize and exploit the opportunities for moral growth inherently presented by conflict. It aims at changing the parties themselves for the better, as human beings.[1]

By Bush and Folger's definition, "empowerment means the restoration to individuals of a sense of their own value and strength and their own capacity to handle life's problems."[2] In their treatment, empowerment does not include 'power balancing' or redistribution of power within the mediation process itself in order to protect weaker parties."[3] Further, it does not mean "controlling or influencing the mediation process so as to produce outcomes that redistribute resources or power outside the process from stronger to weaker parties."[4]

Bush and Folger identify two ways in which transformative mediators work to empower parties in a mediation:

  1. They adopt a "micro" focus. They presume that, during the mediation process, there will be many opportunities for each party to make decisions through which they will feel a new sense of control over the conflict, or at least over their behavior in the conflict. Transformative mediators listen carefully to the statements made by each party, looking for such transformative opportunities.

This approach contrasts with a "macro" focus, more common in the problem-solving approach, "in which mediators try to reach global assessments about the definition of the parties' problem and view all the parties' contributions in terms of inputs into this global problem-assessment effort."[5]

  1. Transformative mediators put a priority on encouraging and supporting parties in careful deliberation about the range of choices they may have available to them.

The parties' goals and choices are treated as central at all levels of decision making. Mediators consciously try to avoid shaping issues, proposals, or terms for settlement, or even pushing for the achievement of settlement at all. Instead, they encourage parties to define problems and find solutions for themselves, and they endorse and support the parties' own efforts to do so.[6]

The responsibilities of the transformative mediator do not include advocating, advising, or counseling in order to increase the strength of either party.

Although Bush and Folger's concept of empowerment and transformative mediation is useful, intractable conflicts call for a broader and deeper definition of empowerment. Often, it is not a question of "restoring" a sense of value and strength; oppressed and disenfranchised people may never have had this sense. Second, Bush and Folger focus on the interpersonal only. The interpersonal can be important in intractable conflicts, but it is never the only consideration. A more systemic consideration is needed. Finally, Bush and Folger limit their discussion to mediation, where we must here consider a broader array of intervention roles.

A Broader View of Empowerment

"Empowerment" has many meanings and uses, as reflected in these examples:

  • Wingspan Youth Development Services defines empowerment as character education and leadership development. The organization's theme is described by a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt: "We must do that which we think we can not."[7]
  • The focus of African-American Community Empowerment, Inc. of Morris County, N.J., is reflected in its motto: "People helping people to attain personal growth through community empowerment."[8]
  • The Midlands Intertribal Empowerment Group defines its purpose as preserving and supporting Native American culture in South Carolina.
  • The Government of India has a Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and the city of Los Angeles, Calif., has a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
  • The Internet hosts a wide variety of self-improvement Web sites focused on personal empowerment.

Most of these definitions are more individual-oriented than is appropriate when focusing on intractable social conflict. In this essay, I use the word "empowerment" differently; here, "empowerment" refers to processes through which disenfranchised social groups work to change their social surroundings, change detrimental policies and structures, and work to fulfill their needs.

Interestingly, the word "empowerment" can be disempowering, when it is understood to mean the giving of power by the powerful to the powerless. That is not how the term is used here. The appropriate role of the person or group with power is to share, not to convey or impose. If I give or even lend you my power, you are beholden to me for it. If, on the other hand, I help you build your own power base, the power is yours, not mine. I may do this as a mentor, a researcher, a facilitator, or an ally, since leadership and spokesperson roles need to remain with the group that is in the process of empowering itself. The group must make and own its decisions, so that group members can develop and experience their own power.

Additional insights into empowerment are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Empowerment Strategies

The strategies for empowering disenfranchised and oppressed people can be grouped into three general approaches: education, organization, and networking.


The primer on education for empowerment is Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Its underlying tenet is that the disempowered already know a great deal about the sources of their oppression and what must be done to overcome it. What they do not have is an organized approach to translating this knowledge into action. The appropriate educational approach is therefore one that elicits participants' knowledge and responses. Freire calls this educational method "problem-posing."[9]

[T]he problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students--no longer docile listeners--are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own.[10]

Participants empower themselves by taking responsibility for their own learning (actively engaging as teachers as well as students), by increasing their understanding of the communities in which they live, and by understanding how they as individuals are affected by current and potential policies and structures. Equipped with this greater understanding and with new confidence in themselves, participants can develop policies and structures that better meet their needs, and strategies for bringing those policies into being.

Freire's approach is aligned with "transformative" learning theory, which has developed over the past 20 years:

Transformative learning involves participation in constructive discourse to use the experience of others to assess reasons justifying...[our] assumptions, and making an action decision based on the resulting insight...Transformation theory's focus is on how we learn to negotiate and act on our own purposes, values, feelings and meanings rather than on those we have uncritically assimilated from others--to gain greater control over our lives as socially responsible, clear-thinking decision makers.[11]

To bring about the deep change required to resolve intractable conflict, educators must be willing to challenge deeply held assumptions. It is important to assess not only the weaknesses of the other and the strengths of one's own group, but also the strengths of the other and one's own weaknesses. This assessment can be a wrenching process, for both the educator and the students.

Transformative learning, especially when it involves subjective reframing, is often an intensely threatening emotional experience in which we have to become aware of both the assumptions undergirding our ideas and those supporting our emotional responses to the need to change.[12]

Therefore, education that is intended to address inequities in the system should be not only interactive and dialogical (meaning involving a dialogue between "teacher(s) and student(s)), but also nurturing. The educational effort must also go beyond traditional education in its content and methods, to support learners in dealing with the emotional upheaval they are likely to experience.


As a community organizer, one of my first lessons was that poor people have no voice because they have no organization. An organization gives people a way of expressing their group needs in a way that cannot be ignored. This is the message that Saul Alinsky presented so powerfully in his books, and even more through the organizations he helped to establish, which are still active today.

While many groups come together around specific issues, and organize to confront those issues, Alinsky and others advocated a different approach: first, the building of an organization and, only then, focusing on specific issues.

"Building a strong, lasting and staffed organization alters the relations of power. Once such an organization exists, people on the "other side" must always consider the organization when making decisions."[13]

In Alinsky-style organizing, power is built up in a step-by-step approach, which includes both recruitment and achievement. Small groups are organized first, for example on a block-by-block or small neighborhood-by-small-neighborhood basis. Once the small groups have met and worked successfully together on issues, they are brought together into a larger community-wide organization. The larger group thus has an infrastructure as well as experience.

The groups begin with small, "winnable" issues. The newly organized group is rarely ready to take on City Hall--yet. Taking on a task too big is likely to be ineffective and lead to the demoralization of the group, encouraging a "See, I told you so" response, as members move back to resignation to intolerable or unjust conditions. The organizers must put a strong emphasis on helping the group choose "winnable issues" with which to begin.


Members of disenfranchised groups can realize and extend power through networking with others, both inside and outside their own social groups.

For example, Naomi Wolf describes the effectiveness of "power groups"[14] of women who meet each month (she prefers not to use the term "networking"). Although the group members may differ in a variety of ways, they often share a major interest such as religious affiliation or profession. The structure that Wolf identifies revolves around a gathering at which members share a meal and talk to each other informally. At a certain point in the meeting, each announces to the group what she is doing and what resources or contacts or information she has access to. She also tells the group what resources, contacts, or information she needs.[15]

Supplied with a list of names and phone numbers, "anyone can contact anyone else to make a request, propose a project, exchange information, or suggest a deal."[16] In Wolf's group, these contacts have resulted in a wide range of new ventures by the women involved, from obtaining new jobs or freelance work to putting on a benefit. Members are asked to share such news with the group, since this news "bolsters everyone's sense of effectiveness, and gives women practice in recounting their own triumphs and sharing in other women's triumphs."[17]

Another example of a group using structured networking as an empowerment tool is the Columbia Luncheon Club of Columbia, S.C., which has been holding monthly meetings for 40 years. When the American South was still segregated, the Club provided the only place for blacks and whites to gather socially in the state capital. There are now numerous such venues in Columbia, but the Club has been so successful that it continues. Harrison Reardon, Club President during 2002-2003, thinks that its impact can be attributed to its underlying precept: good will. The only requirement for club membership is a commitment to act with good will toward others, regardless of race, gender, or creed.

The Columbia Luncheon Club meetings are less structured than those of Wolf's power group. Members register for the monthly luncheon and are assigned to tables, ensuring that, over time, each member will have an opportunity to network with each other member. There is no agenda; table conversations typically begin with introductions that include the paid or volunteer work of the participants, and may build on this information or turn to recent events in the community. These conversations often lead to subsequent meetings between members who have noted some overlap in their interests.

As with Wolf's power groups, Columbia Luncheon Club members have "found jobs, apartments, and freelance work; traded services ... [and] sought investors."[18] Beyond this, the Luncheon Club has played a role in easing the community into a racially diverse sharing of political and economic power.

Empowerment and the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts

The above empowerment strategies can be used in efforts to resolve intractable conflicts. The essay on peacemaking processes presents a model, derived from the work of Adam Curle, that is helpful in determining how to use these strategies.

Educational efforts, in Curle's model, include strategies that increase awareness of the nature and sources of the conflict, and of ways of resolving the conflict that meet the needs of the initially less powerful groups. The discussion above provides guidelines for the type of education most likely to be both empowering and informative for disenfranchised groups.

It is also important to educate adversaries and potential allies. While many who benefit from the status quo will not be willing to give up their privilege in order to create a more equitable social system, some will be willing to do so if they fully understand their part in the system. As the costs of the conflict increase, other privileged individuals may reach a point at which they feel that the costs of privilege outweigh its benefits. Throughout the course of conflict, efforts should be made to educate these potential allies.

Organization also has a clear role in Curle's model. For educational efforts to reach a broad range of the population, organization is necessary. In addition, confrontational strategies (such as marches, strikes, or publicity campaigns) geared to overcome the existing imbalance among the parties are crucial. Without a well-organized campaign, small victories may be won, but the overall climate and structure are likely to withstand challenges if the campaign is not sufficiently organized to sustain itself for the long haul. Alinsky and others emphasized this need for ongoing, vital organizations that give voice to the needs and perspectives of the poor and disenfranchised.

The place of networking in Curle's model is less obvious, but nonetheless important. The change-oriented organization is likely to increase its effectiveness significantly through developing strong connections with a variety of other groups:

  • In the education phase, these connections can be useful in broadening the research and knowledge base of the campaign, as well as in incorporating new educational methods and resources.
  • During the confrontation stage, networking makes the inclusion of support groups and allies easier to arrange.
  • At the bargaining and conciliation stage, good networking makes trust building less problematic with both third parties and adversaries, since relationships already exist with both.

Finally, what is the appropriate role for those who intervene in empowerment efforts? Curle's model suggests that mediation may not be appropriate until power imbalances have first been addressed. Third parties can provide technical assistance, and can work as allies; Alinsky-style organizing offers a good model.

It is not appropriate for outsiders to take on leadership roles, since the result may actually be disempowering, as mentioned above. One of the key elements of this work is leadership development. While the organizer may be an "expert," her role requires her to stay in the background. In meeting with members prior to the initial group meeting, the organizer may help determine who might be most effective as a group leader. From the outset, small-group meetings are led by people from the community itself. The organizer then acts as a coach and de-briefer, rather than a leader.

[1] Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger, The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994), 12.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Ibid, 95.

[4] Ibid, 96.

[5] Ibid, 100.

[6] Ibid, 101.

[7] Wingspan Youth Empowerment Services

[8] African-American community Empowerment Inc., (ACE) of Morris County; available at http://www.aceofmorris.org/

[9] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (New York: Continuum, 2002).

[10] Ibid, 80-81.

[11] Jack Mezirow, "Learning to Think Like an Adult," in Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives in Theory in Progress, Jack Mezirow, ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 8.

[12] Ibid, 6-7.

[13] Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max, Organizing for Social Change: MidwestAcademyManual for Activists. ( Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 2001)

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, 298.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid, 299.

[18] Ibid, 300.

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Empowerment." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empowerment>.

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