Why do I care so much about helping people speak up and be heard?
It didn’t start on this day, but all these years later this incident feeds my determination to help people speak truth to power.
The New York City hotel conference room was plush, with fifty rows of gold ballroom chairs with red velvet seats lined up carefully in two sections. At the head of the room stood a formidable business executive who had just published a book called “Power and Influence.” He didn’t need a microphone. He exuded confidence in the way he held himself, projected his voice and opinions, and “commanded” the room.
Men in dark business suits filled most of the seats. And then there was me, 23-years-old in my dorky blue suit with one of those ridiculous “female bow ties” that were so popular in the 1980s. I was eager to “be corporate” so that I could do the work that I loved, which was working for a Madison Avenue public affairs and crisis communications firm.
I convinced my boss to let me go to this event. So much – too much -- in the field was about tactics, and here was someone talking about how to affect the outcomes – influencing opinion and changing perceptions. It was an easy sell because my boss admired Mr. Power and Influence, who was the CEO of one of the largest public relations agencies in the world.
That's your question, miss?
When it came time for questions my arm shot up. There was so much that I was hungry to know. Mr. Power and Influence kept calling on the middle-aged white men. I kept my arm up. Finally he called on me, “Yes, Miss.”
I don’t remember what I asked. I just remember his response. Not the words, but the body language. First a sigh, then a smirk, then the condescending tone. As if my question and I were not worthy and he couldn’t believe that someone had been so ridiculous to ask him such a question. A few people coughed as he lectured me. Were they embarrassed for him or me?
Maya Angelou once said, ““I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I still remember how he made me feel, and it still makes me angry. When people are seeking to understand or contribute or help, they are worthy. Even if their question is unpolished. Earnestness deserves respect.
I’m just an admin
Flash forward 30 years and I am running a writing workshop for a Fortune 100 company, and people are in small breakout groups, individually writing in response to a prompt about healthcare.
“OK, would everyone now please read aloud what you wrote to the people in your break out groups,” I ask.
In one group a young, African-American woman says, “Oh, skip over me. I’m just and admin not a writer like you all.” In her, I see my 23-year-old self.
”Taneesha, of course you don’t have to share. But there are no right or wrong responses here and you bring a different and valuable perspective because you are an admin.”
Taneesha reads her story and people are stunned. While the professional communicators wrote from their heads about healthcare policy, Taneesha wrote from her gut about her healthcare experiences as a single mother. Her writing was breathtaking.
“Geez, Taneesha,” her colleagues say, “What are you doing as an admin? YOU should be a writer.”
The next day Taneesha came to the workshop wearing bolder lipstick, with her hair done up in a handsome bun. I may have been imagining it, but I think she stood taller, too.
She had been heard. And seen.
Oh, the power that gives us.