I really should be sleeping. Awake last night until 4 a.m., and then up quickly at 7:45, my alarm clock being a two-and-a-half year old who spilled his cheerios on the floor in front of the TV. I made a quick effort to get Authenticate, the e-program, launched, and then it was afternoon.
So I really should be sleeping. But there are things I want to talk about. One of my favorite things about evenings is my conversations with David. He lets me ramble and chase rabbits, and get it all off my chest. Tonight, we talked about the practices of self-discipline. Remind me to tell you about that sometime. And then we talked about why it’s lonely at the top. Remind me to tell you about that, too.
Right now, though, I want to tell a story. Humor me.
I’ve been a member of a women’s business forum for as long as I can remember. Since 2004, I think. I’ve switched groups over the years, and now I’m in a group called Posse, that I’ve talked about from time to time. These groups are formatted a bit like a mastermind group, with a strict procedural process that’s followed at every meeting, just to make sure that valuable time is maximized. I stay committed to these types of forums because it’s where I learn. On a monthly basis, this meeting becomes my classroom, and it’s an incredible experience.
When I was pregnant with my first son, the group I was in at the time took a retreat to a ropes course. I had never been to a ropes course, but there was a lot of groaning when someone suggested it. I was pregnant, after all, which was probably a legitimate excuse, but it’s safe to say the group was not short on excuses. Nevertheless, we road-tripped to an obscure corner in Oklahoma where a facilitator met us out in the sweltering July sun.
The good news is that he didn’t make us climb anything. The bad news was that he gave a bunch of cooks very few orders. We were presented with challenges, and told to organize ourselves and work towards a common good, an end goal, a successful outcome. The format of the day was that we’d do an exercise, and he’d critique the group and individuals with feedback, and then we’d move on to the next exercise with fresh eyes.
After the first exercise, he told us we were a disaster. Scattered. Not a team. Too many cooks and not enough broth. I don’t remember his feedback at this point clearly, but I know it wasn’t positive.
We moved on to the next exercise. Feedback. Still not good. And so to the next exercise. It was something relay-oriented, I think. About halfway through the event, I think I checked out. Not because I was pregnant, but because I was frustrated. Our group was improving, but in microscopic increments. There were a lot of people talking, and not a lot was getting done.
A group of people talking, but not deciding anything, is pretty high up on my pet-peeve list.
I had probably inwardly rolled my eyes at some of that day’s events. I could see that my team mates were trying, though, so I was conscious of my attitude in the activity, and I didn’t want to let my annoyance show.
The facilitator pulled us all into a conference room. He was almost beyond frustrated. I think his voice increased a decibel or two. As he went around the table, he severely critiqued everyone’s attitude, participation, and performance. When he got to me, he pointed a finger with the flick of a wrist. “YOU,” he said, “You think people are listening, but they’re not.”
It was an odd statement. I’m not softspoken. I don’t lack opinions. So how on earth was I not being heard? If I wanted to, I could take the statement as a bit of an insult. But defensiveness doesn’t breed growth, so I left the categorization of insult on the table. He continued: “No one is hearing anything you are saying. If you want to be heard, you need to find someone who has good ideas, someone whose ideas are not being heard, and use your voice to point others to them.”
I left the room with mixed emotions. I was offended, that this group of women that I looked up to, didn’t give me enough credit to hear my ideas. Not just good ideas, GREAT ideas–and no one wanted them. That was beyond frustrating. But I also knew that I couldn’t change that. I couldn’t change the group. I had to work with the resources I was given, which, in this case, was a voice that could be heard by this group when it pointed to other people’s ideas. Just not my ideas. As someone who LOVES ideas, do you understand how painful it was to hear that my ideas were not going to be heard, not going to be used?
I trudged to the next exercise. It was a rope spider web, giant, stretched between two trees. Our goal, as a team, was to get all members from one side of the web to the other. The constraints of the game were that we could only put one person through each opening in the web. Once a person had gone through that opening, the opening could not be used to send another person through. When the person was going through the opening, their body was not allowed touch the rope web. Meaning, the smaller the person, the smaller the opening. Smaller people would be able to fit through smaller openings, and visa versa.
As soon as we understood our instructions, the chatter began. So and so was short, so she needed to go through a low opening on the bottom. Another team member was tall, so she could step through a higher opening. We pretty much started with shortest, and worked our way up to tall and skinny. Things were going well, but I was fuming. I wasn’t talking at all, because, for crying out loud, no one was going to listen. Translation: I was a cook, but if they weren’t going to listen to me tell them how to cook broth, well, then, FINE. They could just ruin their own broth.
Lovely attitude, right? Nice chip on the shoulder, right there.
We were down to three team members left on the original side, including pregnant me, and two taller ladies. The only openings left were relatively high up, and incredibly small in size. The exercise was actually looking pretty impossible to finish. The ideas being tossed around were awful. Inward eye-rolling on my part continued. I had pretty much given up looking for solutions, since I wasn’t going to be heard.
And then I remembered I had a task. I was told to look for the quietest person, with the best ideas, and make sure they were heard. I remember literally looking around me, taking an assessment of the group. Who was talking, and who was listening? There were a few loud ones. Actually, let’s be honest: the majority was vocal. Standing patiently to one side, however, was a gal who was a brilliant financial adviser. Let’s call her Tammy. It seemed like Tammy was thoroughly observing the group, and she was definitely being quiet.
I sidled up to her. “Do YOU have any ideas?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “if you take this person, and put them here…” and from there, she launched into the most brilliant solution for solving this darn ropes course web exercise.
I turned to the group, and used my voice for probably the first time during the exercise. “Hey ya’ll! I think Tammy has a solution!”
All the cooks quit their clucking and chattering and turned towards Tammy and me. It was a weird feeling. After being told my ideas wouldn’t be heard, that no one cared and no one would listen, it felt like a magical power to have their full attention. “Tammy had some good ideas,” I said, and I turned the stage over to her.
That was it. That was my moment in the spotlight. Tammy took it from there. I was instructed, someone else was instructed, and then our team performed the most impressive feat of all: lifting a full grown woman in plank position above our heads and ever so carefully maneuvering her through a the tiniest opening in that web.
The facilitator stood there in awe. “I can’t believe you guys completed this PERFECTLY. No one ever completes this exercise perfectly.”
The team members all beamed.
Then he looked at me. “You did this. If you had been trying to tell everyone your ideas, you never would have seen that Tammy had an even better solution. Because your voice carries, you were able to get her the attention and the platform she needed to communicate the strategy that would lead to the best results.”
It was a hard lesson to hear. But the truth of the matter is: our ideas aren’t worth as much as we think they are. My ideas aren’t worth as much as I think they are. Painful to admit, but true. My voice on, on the other hand, when used in the right capacity, is powerful.
For me, that day was a defining moment. It defined who I was as a leader, as a team member, as a human. I still get irritated when I can’t express my ideas and opinions, but I’ve learned to do it in other ways. I’ve learned to use my sarcasm as humor in group settings, I’ve learned that there is a time for ideas, but they need to be presented softly, and with suggested actionable steps. I’ve learned that life is better when I’m willing to play second fiddle. I’ve learned that when I try to claim expert status, I lose the ability to make a difference.
This message continues to be reinforced in my experiences: my voice is powerful when I use it to point to other people.
I have so many ideas for this, friends. I’m putting a lot of prayer and thought into how I can use my voice to uplift, encourage, inspire, help, love.
Sometimes, the best way to be heard isn’t to speak. Sometimes, the best way to be heard is to listen.