Are we doing a disservice by speaking for those not in the room?

I appreciate your push to use my voice and see it distinctly as my own. And I’m on board with it. There’s a tension there that I find healthy (I suppose). 

It’s the challenge of being clear and resolute in my Onlyness (my understanding of it) while ensuring I’m not appropriating someone else’s Onlyness and passing it off as my own. Or taking up space that might not be mine to own. For example, when I share a bunch of ideas resulting from the teams I work with. I use the word “we” to give credit to and quote people. But, sometimes, I get credited for those ideas. As if they were all my own. What do I do then? Not speak?

Similarly, I find myself in rooms where I advocate for things that serve an indigenous, less-wealthy community of people. I feel weird doing so because I’d rather those less powerful people be in the room and speak for themselves. I want to “pass the microphone” to those voices.  

So how do I use my voice without taking what isn’t mine? 

Dear Healthy Tension,

Someone I love is having problems with a colleague. For many years, her colleague has been angry. Slowly but surely, he started yelling in meetings. Over time, the yelling got directed at her, someone he supposedly respected. And when she raised a concern with how this made her feel? He says, “the criticism hurts him,” much like that podcaster asshat in A Matter of Trust.

Unsurprisingly, all of this created a lack of safety, affecting her voice. 

She started to walk on eggshells, parsing every word, so it was neat and just small enough to be heard. (If he could hear her at all.) 

That, lovebug, is taking what isn’t yours; when one voice is so loud that it drowns out anothers’.

This is not what I hear you describing, healthy tension. Not at all. 


I hear you paying attention to who is in the room and who is left out. I see you becoming self-aware (probably good) but maybe overly self-conscious (perhaps less helpful). 

You remind me of someone else, I advise. 

In her leadership role, she wanted to give credit and help her team (and their Onlyness!) shine. But she neglected to notice that she had a seat at the table for a reason. Her annual review came with unexpected feedback from her bosses: they hadn’t heard enough of her distinct ideas.  

In wanting to share the microphone with her team, she had surrendered her voice. 

This is an overcorrection and misunderstanding about how one’s voice works. 

Advocating for each of us to be heard cannot and does not mean a smaller voice for you. 

It’s not pie, as the quote goes. 


Voice is vital. 

But thinking of voice without context would be like saying flowers bloom to show off their colors. As if the beauty of those colors is in itself the fullness of expression.  

The Onlyness construct is so much more than that. It needs to be. 

So let me ask you this: Why DO flowering plants bloom?

Flowers bloom so they can perpetuate themselves. 

Perpetuate. From the Latin perpetuus, or continuing. As in to make something continue

Colorful flowers are not the point. They serve a purpose so that pollination can occur. 

Which is how voice matters, too. Voice matters because it’s how we hear those ideas and perspectives that come from that spot in the world only you stand. And so those ideas find their home, become real and robust, and make an impact.

As we wrote in This Is The Sound Of My Soul, voice is not a private act but a social one. And, as Lisa Feldman-Barrett just wrote, you can affect what goes on in another if you raise your voice or just your eyebrow. Belonging changes what voice does.

This is why voice alone isn’t Onlyness and why belonging is central. (grid, below). 

Belonging and voice are both needed for one’s Onlyness to shine. That person who is being yelled at? She’s been shown repeatedly how she is not valued, not respected. The lack of belonging in that relationship means she can’t be herself. Voice without belonging is isolating. Belonging without voice is a compromise of fitting in. But voice and belonging together cause a flourishing. Like wildflowers filling up a hillside in beauty, dancing in the wind. Like ideas making a dent in the universe. 

You ask, how do I use my voice without taking what isn’t mine?

It’s a helpful question, but I want to give you another one: How do I use my voice to perpetuate our work? 

Your voice, then, is of use when it is service to what matters. So when you speak and your team is not in the room, you perpetuate your team’s work. And when you talk about the topics you care about wrt indigenous folks, you perpetuate your shared agenda. (And build new tables, rooms where those voices are integrated by design.)


You’re not the first one who has shared with me this challenge of “passing the microphone.” 

I get it. It’s problematic to hire Robin DeAngelo, the white woman who wrote White Fragility, so she earns money to speak on issues instead of hiring a Black thinker on the same topics. Pass the microphone.

But, I’ve heard this term, “passing the microphone,” come out of people’s mouths as they back away. A leader says he didn’t want to step on toes in his advocacy of Black people, so he stopped advocating altogether. Another said they don’t know if they should say uncomfortable things or defer to people with more skin in the game. Or like the leader who wants so much to be a good advocate for her team that she doesn’t advocate for herself as the leader of that team. 

And that’s when, Honest To Gawd, I feel like we’ve lost the thread.

Abandonment is not the point of “passing the microphone.” Passing the microphone is asking you to engage with stakeholders. As we’ve already explored, far too many people talk of people and for people rather than find ways to do things with people (and get them paid). The keyword is “with.” 

The future is not created; the future is co-created.


I love that you want to avoid taking what isn’t yours. You have named the tension about voice. It’s not about any singular voice counting, but how each of us needs to be heard. 

You want to learn how to set the volume of your voice so it’s clear but not loud.

What I want you to see is that when you start walking on eggshells using your voice, the very best part of you is being diminished. Instead, ask, as I am using my voice, and making it safe for others to use theirs. Make both things true. 

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