The Power to Make a Difference
Personal Responsibility = Personal Power
Approximately a 5 minute read
Staying focused on your own "response-ability"—your ability to choose your own responses—increases your personal power and expands the scope of your influence.
(Please note that this article will make the most sense if you read it soon after reading the previous article in this Series, as the information in them is very closely connected.)
Taking care of your Circle of Response
It illustrates how there are things in life that are entirely within your control – your own responses, in the central Circle of Response; things you can influence – the Circle of Influence; and things that concern you but that you have no control over at all – out in the Circle of Concern.
How you take care of the things in your Circle of Response effects everything that happens in all three circles, and is foundational to any attempt at living a satisfying, meaningful, self-directed life.
As we’ll explore in this article, when you focus your efforts and energy mainly in your inner Circle of Response, your ability to make a difference to things you care about expands.Conversely, if you focus on things you have no control over, you "spend the wind without raising the sails"2 – your energy is wasted and your effectiveness diminishes.
Expanding your influence
By focusing on what I can take responsibility for rather than on what I think others should be doing, I can become a person who makes a difference.
In Part 3 I listed some examples of things that are out in your Circle of Concern where you can’t do anything about them: ineffective governments, greedy corporations, unaware consumers, and the committee members at your kids’ school.
Some of these will remain out of your direct reach, no matter what you do. But there are some that can be brought into your Circle of Influence, if you focus on your own responses and ask, “What can I do? How can I respond differently, to improve this situation?”
For example, if I send my children to school and do not involve myself beyond that, I’m placing their education out in my Circle of Concern, where I have no influence.
I may be very concerned, and I may spend a lot of energy worrying about or criticizing the way things are done at the school, or blaming the teachers, the administrators, or the system, but that behavior is not effective. And as I become known as someone who blames and finger-points, my capacity to make any difference will diminish still further.
On the other hand, if I get involved, volunteer my time in the classrooms, attend meetings, reserve judgement, and contribute respectfully in any way I can, then I am exercising my personal power and moving my children’s education closer toward the center of my life, into my Circle of Influence.
Gradually, by remaining focused on what I can take responsibility for, on how I can contribute rather than on what I think others should be doing, I can become a person who makes a difference.
Now, I’m becoming known as a positive, helpful, caring, and understanding person, to whom people will turn and from whom people will be more willing to accept suggestions. My influence has begun to expand.
Do I want to be responsible for this?
Continuing with the same example, would you want to bring the workings of your kids’ school this close to the center of your life?Taking time to search for the answer that feels right to this kind of question is an example of the work that can only be done at the very center of your life – within your Circle of Response. Here is where you choose what you will focus on, and it’s wise to choose carefully: what you focus on will loom larger in your life than what you don’t focus on.
What things will you give your full attention to? What things will you take full responsibility, or a lot of responsibility, for? Those things will be pulled closer to the center of your life and will remain there so long as you keep paying attention to them, so long as you keep taking responsibility for them.
Can you bring things that are out in your Circle of Concern into your influence?
If you claim that it’s not your fault, that there's nothing you can do about it, you lose any chance you might have had to influence that situation.
The answer to the question in this subheading is: “Sometimes.”
To continue with the school example above, I didn’t like the idea of becoming this involved in school, because in my opinion (despite the heroic efforts of many individual teachers and administrators to break out of it) school is part a “story of control” that’s not working.
So if we weren’t interested in taking responsibility for school, but we wanted to strongly influence our kids’ education, what were my husband and I to do?
We chose not to take responsibility for school, but instead to take responsibility within our own family and very close to the center of our lives, for extending “parenting” to include “facilitating education.” We became home-educators.
In doing so we took on an enormous responsibility, and with it we created the power to give our kids a profoundly different style of education than they would have experienced at school.You have to take personal responsibility for your own role in the story if you want to have the power to change the story3.
You can’t have one without the other.
Abandon your responsibility, point the finger, blame someone or something else, claim that it’s not your fault, and you also lose any chance you might have had to influence that situation.
What if you try to take responsibility for something that’s none of your business?
If you focus your energy on issues you cannot have any effect on, like those evil corporations or those greedy, unaware consumers out there, you’ll pull those toward the center of your life also.
The nature of issues like these is that they cannot be brought within your influence, so pulling them toward you will put inward pressure on your Circles of Influence and Response, shrinking them and making you feel helpless and overwhelmed or angry and bitter.
Importantly, it’s not just the Bigs out there that will waste your energy if you focus on them.
For an example of a smaller thing that you might be tempted to meddle with or point the finger at, maybe there is someone close to you whom you think should shape up.
Maybe you think that if you put your attention on changing their behavior, you could make a difference. This tempts us, and feels like it will work, because it’s usually much more comfortable to focus on changing someone else’s responses than to focus on our own.
But if you focus on the behavior of someone close to you in a way that robs them of responsibility that should be theirs or that they should be growing into, you drain power from their life and from your own. One version of it is what we call “nagging,” or “micro-managing.” Usually a person who is a chronic micro-manager is displacing their personal power away from their own Circle of Response and trying to direct it at someone else’s.
Each person has their own Circles; if you’re in a position of influence with someone, then your role in that relationship is to help them grow their own Circle of Response, not take it over from them.
Are you being proactive or reactive?
Proactive people act on life.
They focus their energy and attention firstly on things in their Circle of Response, secondly on things in their Circle of Influence, and invest no direct energy at all on the things that are out in their Circle of Concern.
Proactive people take full responsibility for the things they can control, beginning with their own interpretations (stories), and responses to the situations they find themselves in.
Reactive people, on the other hand, allow life to act on them.
They focus their energy and attention on the outer Circle of Concern, where its utterly wasted. They have no energy to make a difference to anything because they are always reacting to outside events that drain their energy and leave them feeling powerless and frustrated.
Coming up next
We’ve been dealing with broad concepts up until now in this Series. Now its time to begin to zoom in a bit onto some strategies that I hope will help you apply the ideas we’ve been talking about, in the nitty gritty of daily life.
In Part 5 we’re going to take a look at a common mistake that leads to our finding ourselves rushing from one task to another, feeling like there is never enough time to get it all done.
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- As far as I know, Steven Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was the originator of the Circles of Influence and Concern. And I first came across the idea of a 3rd, central circle in an article by Vlad Dolezal.
- I’m quoting Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “We Were Made for These Times.”
- We were fortunate to be in a position to make the choice we did. Often life involves restraints, and when you ask, “What can I do, to improve this situation?” the answer is, “Not much.”
But it’s never, “Nothing.” Even if your choice of actions is limited, you still get to choose your internal response. You get to choose whether to gnash your teeth and bemoan your constraints, or live peacefully within them for now while you remain open to the possibility of change.