“My voice is born repeatedly in the fields of uncertainty.”
– Terry Tempest Williams
One of our facilitators reminded me of this simple truth a few years ago: “The basic unit of work is a conversation.” While so much of work hinges on voice, I have abandoned mine over the years out of fear that it’s not safe to say what I need to say. That little voice inside me isn’t always easy to quiet. I’ve learned and relearned how much it certainly bears truth worth uttering.
I grew up in a home where communications weren’t always straight shootin’. Emotions weren’t talked about in an adult way, or received in an adult way, and there were some things you just didn’t talk about even if we all knew about it. That kind of incongruence was unnerving as a child developing her senses and learning to trust herself. When someone told me one thing which didn’t seem to match up to the feeling in the air, or something felt off, my beacon of inner knowing was thrown off. My sense of “But why does it not feel quite right?” was a hard thing to reconcile as a kid. It was the kind of situation that made me a bit of the straight shooter in the family. If no one was going to say what was really going on, it would almost surely come out of my mouth exactly as I saw it, much to the shock of my family members.
Later in gradeschool, one of my teachers gave each us bookmarks with the meaning and origin of our names on them. ‘Allison,’ of Irish-Gaelic origin, meant “little truthful one.” Some part of me took that as an aspiration to live up to, but I didn’t always trust my own voice and what I really wanted to say.
Even if I couldn’t put words to what was happening, I could usually tell when something wasn’t right by how it felt in my body. When I was exasperated as to why no one was talking about something, whatever it may have been, that vexation created tension in me until what was really going on was named and voiced. (Some accounts didn’t get resolved or squared up until I was well in my 30s.)
It has taken me years to use the words “this doesn’t feel right to me” out loud to name the dissonant feeling I was having about a situation. There was also part of me that wanted to trust what was happening, what people were saying, what was being presented, as ‘the whole story,’ without asking questions, prodding further, or saying anything against the grain. I call that my gut-override capacity, which can show up in work situations. I can be sitting in a meeting, listening to what’s being said and wondering about a slew of questions in my inside-my-head-voice that would further the conversation, perhaps be really provocative, yet the words hesitate to leave my mouth in the moment.
In her book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us.”
A few years ago, I worked with a presentation coach on finding my voice. I had to get over feeling like I was going to be burned at the stake for speaking out loud. Somewhere in the midst of the coach-coachee call-and-response articulations of various consonant and vowel sound combinations, and locating the origin of sound deep in my abdomen, I could also feel that place where voice began and where it wanted to silence itself before it escaped into the wild.
Somewhere in the tangle of “this doesn’t feel right” and my capacity to override my gut intuition, my straight shootin’ Annie Oakley perspective gets muddled with self-doubt, and smothered in fear of stating her truth. Even if I have the words articulating the feelings and naming the incongruities I see and hear, they get stopped up in a jumble at my vocal cords out of fear that they are too powerful to be heard.
By keeping my voice on lockdown, with my fears of being “too much” or saying something someone doesn’t want to hear holding the key, I’m not really being honest at all. When I keep how I really feel on the inside, and not in my outside voice, it throws kink in the ability to show up and relate authentically. Mostly, that keeps me unheard and unseen — complicit in creating a few of the things I say I don’t want.
“Choosing with integrity means finding ways to speak up that honor your reality, the reality of others, and your willingness to meet in the center of that large field. It’s hard sometimes.” – Terry Tempest Williams
I’m currently in the midst of rewriting our employee manual into the Reboot Culture Book. In the zero-to-one stage of the company, our current handbook consisted of the bare bones, drab compliance-based verbiage borne of necessity. It’s that thing no one (especially me) wants to really read, but it’s a CYA measure to keep us all on the same page about some very important, basic ‘how employment works’ sorts of things. Now, more than three years into this endeavor, it feels time to articulate the structure and soul of our company, in addition to the parts that make us a compliant business, like how we balance to “get sh*t done,” – be very real about what challenges we’re working on, and check out our inner work as it shows up at work.
As we at Reboot set out to do good work done well for the right reasons, we also set out to build the company we tell our clients to build. This means we walk our talk in creating a company that feels good to be a part of as a human, does great work in the world, and is fiscally responsible. A big part of that means that we talk about things — the things that matter, things that we’re afraid to say, what we know and don’t know, what could be coming from our shadow, and the elephant in the room – often. Being able to do that means creating a space where it’s safe to do that.
While prepping this newsletter in conjunction with the podcast conversation with Patty McCord just after the release of her new book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, I read the episode description, my colleague, Margaret Hendricks wrote:
Radical honesty — an open and authentic contribution, which lacks the intention of causing unnecessary pain and suffering, but serves to provide a mirror in which we can clearly reflect on the aspects of ourselves to which we are blind. […] how the implementation of radical honesty in our organizations serves to forge solid, supportive spaces where workplace safety is no longer defined solely by the assurance of employment but contains space for team members to feel seen, heard and nourished to grow. Where skill sets are broadened, and diverse people with different ways of thinking come together without fear or expectation to judge or be judged. Wouldn’t that be a more powerful way of working?
“I wonder if Reboot comes close to that description?” I asked Margaret, wondering out loud.
She replied, “I definitely think you could sub ‘radical honesty’ with Reboot.”
Relief washed over me with her response. We set out to do things differently when we started our company, not just because we wanted to shift the notion of work that our parents knew, we wanted to create the change we wanted to see based on our own experiences of work and create a ripple effect for our kids’ generations (that alone will bring tears to the eyes of over half the team when they talk about how close our work here is to “heart work” for each of us here). We’re building a movement that shifts how we are at work, and maybe even in other important places in our lives.
Being radically honest is a door we each have to walk through in our lives. It’s a powerful move that starts in our conversations, and how honest they are, at work, in our relationships, with our loved ones.
Where do you give your power away? When where and how do you silence your voice? How can we create workplaces that give employees the security and safety to cut through the bullsh*t that keeps our best work trapped from its fullest expression? What kind of powerful cultures would we create?