All words have power, but how do you decide what words have value?
Q: Several years ago, a line manager told me, “you realize I am letting you play at learning and development.” Now, in a crass comment, an unnecessary comment, and poorly communicated. What was said without being said?
I control you.
I decide if you get to step outside of your narrowly defined job role.
L&D adds little value to me, but if it keeps you happy, go ahead and play.
Know I can f@@k your worldview up at will.
This is just one example of messages I’ve had shape me, and it’s only years later that I see how much it caused me to move in one direction, to accommodate his point of view over my own. It shows the tremendous power of words.
Dear Years Later,
Not everyone’s words deserve to be valued. Not if they don’t value you.
And as easy as that sounds, or how easily one can write it, it’s hard to process at the moment.
I learned this lesson when I was talking to a famous author who had offered to help me title what would be my second book, the one Harvard published.
In response to my question about the best book title, this is what he said (and notice how it has nothing at all to do with the question). He answered, “As a brown woman, your chances of being seen and heard in the world are next to NOTHING. For your ideas to be seen, they need to be edgier.” He paused as if to resolve this tension as he stared over and perhaps through stained glass windows in the church where we were sitting. Instead, he affirmed why it was futile. “But if you are edgy, you will be too scary to be heard.”
It was a sleight of hand far too many people experience.
He flattened the many reasons that I had a distinct point of view into a two-dimensional rationale for why I was predestined to fail. My point of view, formed by working my way up from the bottom vs. getting an Ivy League education, for example, was eliminated, and I was reduced to my skin color and gender.
By uttering a few words, he performed a disappearing trick—poof, my value vanished while his value remained high because he was the “good guy” who offered help.
He had the nicest of tones. And I let that tone fool me. But those kind words and tone were for him, not for me. He used polished and polite language, even as he was limiting me so he could have the moral identity of “I’m a good person, damnit” regardless of his harmful words.
As you said, it’s words that have power.
TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW A GOOD THING GOES BAD
When someone’s words tell you that your voice and new ideas don’t belong, they should automatically lose the right to be heard. Because when people do this, they advocate for the status quo and not you. They are blocking the door to newness.
So the question is how to decide what words we listen to.
NOW I’M WONDERING
Years Later, you were able to unpack the messages to understand how they devalued you, but it took time.
Why is that?
When I got advice that my ideas would never be heard? I walked straight from Mr. Author-Guru-Dude into a group of friends. They all said nothing to question or challenge his ideas. My husband, equally, couldn’t or wouldn’t counter the argument when I talked to him. A week later, I shared it with a friend that Guru-Dude and I had in common. She spent time telling me why he said what he said, justifying him while advising me to “move past it.”
But as you said, words have power.
I shared the story with the Harvard book team. And the editor there latched onto the “you’ll never be seen if you’re too edgy” words. Even though I had come up with a sizzling title by then, it got dismissed. Why? Because the Editor dude agreed with the Guru Dude. So Harvard-Editor-Guy insisted that I needed a book title that was an “easy-to-understand” one. This logic was keeping me relatively unknown by packaging my future-forward ideas badly.
It took another year (!) before someone overheard me tell Guru Dude’s story that my “ideas would never be heard.” I was sharing how I should stop trying on my behalf and focus on the next generation. And this person interrupted me mid-sentence to say, um, NOOOOOO.
“What he told you? That is BULLSHIT,” she thundered so that everyone around us suddenly stopped talking.
I was alone until I had her advocacy.
I wonder if that’s the same for you. Did it take years because you did it alone? I say that even if you talked it through with someone. Because when you’re talking with someone who can’t or won’t advocate for you and with you, you might as well be alone.
And that’s the lesson for all of us being told bullshit: FIND YOUR PEOPLE.
SOMETHING TO GET YOU THROUGH?
Find those who can help you see your value.
Without a social construct of belonging, your voice is so tiny or isolated that it can never enable your full value, Onlyness.
It’s taken me many years to know who those people are for me and what to look for.
And so, let me share my five criteria in case it helps you?
- The ones who can see and center someone in their own story.
If I called them today with a story of what just happened, these people would hear Old Guru Guy or Your Old Boss and call bullshit on whatever they said. I found them by sharing stories over time and seeing who stood up for me and with me. I excluded the people who would take the “devil’s advocate” role to justify or explore why the asshat said what he said. (The devil, by the by, doesn’t need an advocate, you do).
- The ones that celebrate everything, not just the perfect parts.
These are the people who hear the stories of what has shaped my life and love me not despite those stories but because of those stories. I found them by sharing my wounds and vulnerabilities and seeing who treated those tenderly. I excluded the people who, when they hear about my injuries, pity me or want me to be “fixed”. My people are proud of me; they can see who I am and what has formed me.
- The ones who inspire.
Because those who surround us affect us. Many people are inspirational, but the ones who can inspire me are those who are willing to share how they are thinking, even when it isn’t going well. I exclude people who tell me a different story the next time we talked about it as if spinning tales, facade mean they’re not letting me see them. Which is the opposte of inspiring, which in the original latin is to ‘impart a truth or idea to someone’. Having them in my inner circle illuminates more possibilities for my own life and work.
- The ones that hold you accountable.
I found those who critique constructively. The ones who don’t tell me “the” answer but can help me see where I’m stuck so I can find “my” answer. I exclude people who want to be right or “know”; People who have a strong desire to be correct aren’t creating accountability; they’re creating inequality or shame. Now I have people who ask me hard questions but always believe in my ability to ultimately figure out the answers, and by helping me see my own question more clearly.
- Those who can co-build the relationship.
I choose parties who are emotionally mature and willing to address things when they come up. This lets us be close. I have three rules for if someone is a good at co-building our relationship: 1) can they name it (x is a problem), 2) can they claim it (here’s why it bothers me), and 3) can they connect you to the solution (here’s what I need from you). I reject the people who can’t hold these conversations because either it means problems don’t get addressed or it means any problems that arise become all mine to solve, which isn’t a way to relate as equals, it’s a dependency.
IS IT A LOVE SONG?
Yes, Words have power. The key is how do you decide what words have value? Just because someone should have your interests at heart doesn’t mean they do. (Or ever will.) We should value those who value us.
It’s James Baldwin’s quote, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” So we can be free.
This matters deeply. We do a BIG thing by building our inner circle. It’s how we dismantle the structures and people who only value certain voices and ideas. It lets us deny their space in our heads. It stops giving them the power to tell us who we are. And it provides us with the strength to not shape-shift, to not accommodate their point of view over our own. Which is how we reclaim ourselves, our Onlyness.
And only as we do that can we shape and build what comes next.