Empowerment in coaching and training. What's behind the words?

Is “empowerment” just another word for motivation and autonomy, or a real paradigm shift with impacts on practices?

[Translation : EPALE France]


Empowerment in coaching and training. What's behind the words? 

During a practice-sharing session on the support of so-called "vulnerable" groups, one of the professionals, who had a lot of experience and was very involved in the discussion, told the group of his frustration at the flood of new, incomprehensible words, which, in his view, simply reiterated familiar concepts in a different way: “We used to talk about motivation, now we are given the terms “agency” and “empowerment”, and even better: “enabling environments”! None of these terms help professionals in the field; they simply give a different name to something they already know very well.” As I listened to him, I wondered. For me, these notions are essential, they give structure, and are potentially operational (they can be quite easily translated into professional practice). There is a risk that they will be left out of the debate because they cannot be easily understood. Couldn't we then, in a few lines, within the framework of a necessarily short (and therefore potentially distorted) article, attempt to clarify these notions, to see what they contribute to the understanding of support (or training) situations and to identify how they can be applied in practice? Without glossing over the possible pitfalls. This is the challenge of the present article. The aim is also to show that all of this is embodied in practice in the field. We will be proposing a series of articles on this theme in the future, reporting on different initiatives based on these principles.

Why such semantic inflation around empowerment?

The period we have been going through, for almost two years now, has made us all experience two dimensions that we had perhaps somewhat forgotten: unpredictability (we sometimes improvise) and the feeling of powerlessness that can individually and collectively paralyse us. In this context, we may feel that we no longer have any control over what happens to us. This intimate experience of vulnerability can paradoxically be very illuminating about what it means to be empowered. Likewise, discussions on activating empowerment are encouraged in public debates, both political (citizenship in particular) and educational. Is this just a question of semantically revisiting well-established notions such as motivation and autonomy? Or are there different conceptual elements that need to be clarified? The presence of these concepts in several guidelines in the world of training and support, the use of this vocabulary in European texts on inclusion, the sometimes confused reference to the notions of empowerment and capability all require clarification. We will first try to define them, but above all we will look at what they can define in terms of public action and training practices.

Secondly, we will try to specify the principles that affect the field of training and support. We will then give some examples of practical and operational applications for professionals. Our aim is to clarify how these approaches are more than just additional injunctions to autonomy and free will.

What are we talking about?

As a preamble, we choose not to name all the historical filiations of the notions mentioned: there would be references to John Dewey but also to the approaches of popular education and many educational initiatives. So what is it all about? In very general terms, it could be formulated as follows: enabling individuals and groups to take control of their own destiny. Thus empowerment can be defined as the ability of people and communities to exercise control over the definition and nature of the changes that affect them.

Beyond this general and consensual intention, what is common to these approaches is the idea of regaining control over one's own life.  Yann Le Bossé, professor in the Department of Foundations and Practices in Education at Laval University in Quebec, defines what he calls DPA (Développement du pouvoir d'agir), or empowerment, as follows: A process of gaining control over what is important to oneself, loved ones or the community with which one identifies. Further on, he specifies: it is the possibility to regulate the events of one's life, to have an impact on what happens to us.

 There is therefore a common idea in these different variations: a dimension of control, of taking back in hand personal levers. This has an impact on the role and approach of the professional. He or she is not (any longer) someone who knows for the other (whatever his or her level of expertise), but someone who facilitates the person in taking charge of handling what is of value to them. This brings us closer to the notion of capabilities developed by the Indian economist Amartya Sen: resources are not the only issue, the challenge is to facilitate the use of these resources to move towards something that is of value to the person: in short, freedom of action and the ability to act. This definition is similar to that of agency: the ability of individuals to be active agents in their own lives, i.e. to exercise control and regulation over their actions.

This shifts the question of support to the following issue: the most important thing is to ensure that the conditions are right for the implementation of these capabilities. This requires careful attention to both the priorities of people (what is valuable to them) and the opportunities provided by the context for using them. One example comes to mind: it is not enough for the moncompteformation application to be easy to access and use, for everyone to be able to make conscious and informed choices. There are other parameters to be taken into account which sometimes require the use of a facilitator.

Some principles that can give structure to educational engineering

While these notions seem relevant, the risk is that they are highly generalised, that everyone wants to talk about them (like Mr Jourdain's prose) without placing them in the context of precise methodological and ethical choices. Below are some structuring principles that can be applied in practice, although not exhaustive:

Individual perspective and consideration of each individual: this is based on the principle that we do not focus on shortcomings to be identified and compensated for, rather on the resources and abilities to be facilitated. Yann Le Bossé talks about presumption of competence.

A person who is involved in the decisions that concern themselves. This does not mean simply asking for their opinion but rather facilitating the joint construction of hypotheses.

Recognition of the value of each person's experience. What is valuable to a person is specific to them. One cannot unilaterally decide what is important and essential for them. Otherwise, perspective logics (knowledge about and for others) are likely to produce either rejection or mere conformity to expectations. Or worse, reinforce the person's sense of powerlessness.

Attention to the mediation of resources (and not just their access). Having resources, of whatever quality, is not enough. It is essential to be able to make these resources usable and appropriate. In this sense, mediation is important.

All of the factors above have an impact on the professional’s approach, which should no longer be vertical and prescriptive. We are therefore talking about a working alliance. This goes far beyond a simple agreement on a programme; it implies a joint commitment, with clear, shared and limited responsibilities.

The importance of community: while much of the work in France has focused on the individual, all of these approaches incorporate the community. This makes it possible both to rebuild a relationship and to avoid the purely individualistic drift of empowerment. It is important to be situated in a wider dimension where each person can exercise power over what happens to them, power to... which can be part of a contribution to a collective effort in order to contribute to a common destiny and benefit from the support of one's peers.

Attention to contexts, places and modalities: in a future article, we will present several experiences where the location, the organisation of the place, the modality of work with the public contribute to numerous and rich contributions. For example, a recent research publication "When research and training contribute to empowerment: a forum theatre experience from the perspective of participants" illustrates the possible impacts on empowerment. This also opens up pedagogical issues on the question of engineering based on slightly different media (cultural, in particular).

In practice

We can now identify the different practices that are immediately impacted by these approaches. This is a major change:

Questions of diagnosis

It is no longer about making a diagnosis aimed at prescribing but of taking the person's situation into consideration. Technically, this can be seen in the implementation of a Shared Situation Analysis (proposed within the framework of the Professional Development Support scheme, for example), which is the joint development of a working framework (clarity of objectives, transparency in the means proposed, relationship of trust) and not just another expert diagnosis. This has two advantages: the fact that the person is a participant increases the likelihood that the decisions made will be implemented; taking into account their context and priorities changes the relationship of trust with the professional. Consideration for what is valuable to the other is a condition for trust.

Questions of employability

If we look at the diagnosis, we see the prerequisites in a completely different way. This immediately raises the question of the conditions of access to schemes or jobs conditioned by employability criteria alone. People are not ready because they do not meet the requirements. Is it not possible to envisage spaces for negotiation? The many experiences of active mediation in employment, with very positive results in terms of inclusion, are free from questions of prerequisites and instead build situations of negotiation and reception in companies. These widely documented results should enable us to see how we collectively have a very significant lever for mobilising empowerment. At a time when there are major recruitment difficulties in many sectors (throughout Europe), shouldn’t we dare to affirm the following: that disproportionate demands amplify the feeling of powerlessness? Could we not envisage a right to try rather than a right to error?

Questions of methods

If the challenge is to pay attention to contexts so that they are facilitating, potentially learning contexts, then engineering can consist of developing and implementing support and training in other places. The interesting increase of third places all over Europe goes along with this. If people meet "elsewhere", what is the impact on the public in terms of mobilisation and learning? Here again, the effects in terms of mobilising individual and collective empowerment are beginning to be widely documented.


We can see from these few examples that there is more at play than just language. In the background, there is a conception that questions the places and approaches of everyone. However, these approaches are not without ambiguities or even pitfalls. Several risks are obvious: the first is that the constant recourse to the development of empowerment is seen as simply a new incantation to place value on individual will: let us make all the necessary resources available to everyone. People are free to use them or not. This necessarily implies that if it doesn't work, it is potentially the fault of the person. This voluntaristic interpretation can also reinforce the feeling of powerlessness, especially for people who are going through periods of great vulnerability. Focusing on action can be frightening when you feel helpless. Being aware of these limits or pitfalls means precisely placing importance on a personalisation of approaches, which is not limited to varying content, but which gives the opportunity to each person to be taken into account in his or her situation, life context and preferred methods. This change of focus is far from anecdotal and can go a long way towards making the slogan "for all and everywhere" effective.


Ressources : in French

Article cité (théâtre Forum)

Interview de Yann le BossééKELVOA.pdf

Annonce du colloque Vulnérabilité et empowerment

André Chauvet, EPALE France ambassador

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