This is the Sound of My Soul

It takes more than boldness or bravery to find one’s voice. I know this much is true.

Photo by Karen Hammega on Unsplash

Q: You've gone from a mainstream corporate voice to your own, able to say "this is what I really care about, whether you like it or not," What guidance do you have for me to do the same? 

Thanks for this. I love what you’re seeing, but let me just share a recent experience to show you what it *really* looks like from behind the scenes? 

I was preparing to give an event keynote and dialed in to one of those conference calls that we’re all a little tired of. But then something was said that made me sit up and take notice. 

A fellow presenter, one who worked at the organization I was hired by, “encouraged” me to change my topic. Innovation, he said, was too broad in these pandemic times. 

Also, my ideas re: Onlyness weren't specific enough to offer any new solutions to these leaders we were talking to. So that had to go, too.

And since I was changing the topic and the theme, he suggested I would surely want to change the title of the talk, too.

Finally, why not do a 45-minute monologue instead of what I suggested, which was 20 minutes to tee-up the topic, with the balance of time used to discuss practical applications?

More disappointing — disheartening, really — than his dismantling of my talk was how everyone else on the prep call (the many people who had picked me, hired me) stayed deafeningly silent. 

So, I felt their collective pressure to do as he said, to minimize my seemingly wild ideas, to change what I wanted to say to be what they wanted to hear. . . to conform. (This experience, FWIW, follows near true-to-form the research Rosabeth Moss Kanter did back in the ‘70s which was about what happens if you’re the “only one” in a room: you’ll be pressured to conform, assimilate to a group’s existing culture.) 

I wish I could tell you that I totally knew what I really care about and was willing and able to deftly advocate for it, whether "they" liked it or not. I wish I could tell you that I just showed confidence, or braveness, or whatever, and just pushed on through. I wish I could easily blow off these near-constant microaggressions from mansplainers who have not nearly the breadth or depth of my experience but who are supremely confident in their ability to tell me that what I'm doing is just dead wrong. I wish I could tell you that, but that’s not what happened.  

I started to question, well, everything

After all, this is feedback related to a group I didn’t yet know. So did the annoying asshat know something I didn’t? Maybe I would be the asshat if I didn’t listen? There was no way to objectively know.

WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS?

So I turned to Vanessa Valenti. 

Vanessa is the CEO who leads Fresh Speakers, who represented me in this gig. I part vented and part explained my concerns, describing the mansplainer and the silence by others, and asked for her take. She was unswerving in her clarity. Overnight, she wrote to me this super thoughtful note about why I was picked in the first place. She pointed out the value of the Onlyness framework to new ideas, to growth. She said that my job wasn’t to focus on the pandemic and add to everyone’s panicky responses, but to offer what only I could, which was how to move forward. 

Vanessa reminded me of my own place in the circle. 

And I thought, yeah, they want me to focus on the fire (pandemic) or the ashes (revenues), and I want to focus on the acorn (what comes next). And with that, I was clear again. Notably, and this is why I’m taking you down this specific story road. . . I didn't get there on my own. It was our exchange, that back and forth that helped me locate, even refine my own voice. I was able to ask, what is all this, and she was able to say that my value-add is not about the crisis du jour, but always, always about how to activate ideas, to create what comes next.

CLAIMING ONE’S VOICE IS NOT DONE ALONE

With her help, I showed up, as myself. True to what I care about. 

Here’s the thing. None of us show up with fully formed ideas or our fully formed voice. Our voice and ideas are developed in context. It’s when someone asks us a question that we now know what we believe. It’s when someone asks how your idea relates to another, that you get more specific about your own. Voice is not a one way street of you doing your thing, in spite of others, and all by yourself. No. It’s not you screaming in the wilderness. If you are putting your ideas into a safe space, it has a chance to be built on, shaped, explored until it becomes viable. But if we put our ideas into unsafe spaces, we’ll do it haltingly or so rigidly that it can’t be molded and shaped to even become viable.

Our surroundings matter.  

It’s one thing to have a novel idea AND yet another thing for it to be heard. This is how one’s voice and belonging intertwine in Onlyness, as I illustrate below. Claiming one’s voice to actual effect is not done alone. 

DESPITE THEM OR BECAUSE OF THEM

When I first emailed Vanessa, I was pissed and confused in equal measure. I knew I was being discounted, and I was also unsure if I needed to change things, given the current context. Despite having spent 7 full years understanding the research to decode what it looks like to claim one's agency, one's intrinsic power, one’s ideas, I still struggle with doing so when the pushback inevitably happens. 

Every day. Every week. All. The. Time. 

It’s only after I come through that juggernaut moment, when I’m not bullied off that spot in the world only I stand, that I’m like, oh yeah, this is the same (f’ng) lesson, yet AGAIN. 

And what is that, you’re probably wondering? 

Well, it goes back to your question. You asked how I manage to own my own voice despite what others think. "Whether they like it or not." That would suggest that claiming the power of one's own ideas is a matter of overcoming one's own self-doubt, or demonstrating one's grit, or simply being brave enough. 

Your question and its underlying framework suggest the battle is “you v. them”.

It’s what we’ve all been taught. (Me, too!) 

But that's not the actual issue.

In fact, you get to claim your own voice BECAUSE of who surrounds you. 

The thing is, each of us needs to be open to feedback, to new ideas, to be responsive to situations. Sometimes to clients, sometimes to bosses, sometimes to partners and kids and loved ones. We need to, want to listen to input. It’s how we grow and change and adapt. Porousness and openness are how we remain adaptable and resilient, creative, and creating, and connected. 

We ALSO need to know how to be true to ourselves, how to stand in that spot where only we can stand. To offer up what we see, or know or understand. That’s how we add our bit to the world. 

The tension is therefore not about how to be true to ourselves in spite of other people, but how to be true to ourselves and belong. See? 

The battle is not you v. them. The battle is knowing who is yours.

NAMING THAT INNER CIRCLE

Who is that for you? 

Can you name those people with whom you can share a struggle and they can help you orient yourself back to your own center? They’re the ones who spot patterns to where you consistently care, maybe where you like to add value, saying, hey you seem to care about this. They ask you clarifying questions when they don’t understand. They remind you of who you are.

Can you name those who might work “with” you but are never able to actually see what only you have to offer? They steal your ideas or credit someone else for them. They say “you don’t get it” instead of asking, “what is it I don’t get about what you’re saying?” Those folks? They are asking you to be like them. 

These questions can help you determine who belongs in the inner circle (and who deserves to be mentally scooched to an outer circle). Now you know who is yours. (As I wrote last week, that inner circle is important because they touch us in our soft spots.)

When we belong, we become more of ourselves. When we belong, we feel ourselves like the Wild Geese that the late poet Mary Oliver wrote of, being called into your place in the world. 

How do you find your own voice? When you honk, they honk back. 

It’s not despite others, it’s because of them.