Claiming Your Voice – Living Your Values
A Girls’ Voice- Lost and Found
Sometimes honoring your own significance means living your values, claiming your voice, and abandoning a place of familiarity, comfort, and security to do so. Such are the reoccurring themes of my life, some of which are captured in this blog.
Looking at a picture of me standing in front of my childhood home in my plaid school uniform, the numbers of our address visible behind me, my then 10-year-old son reflecting on our many moves in his young life said enviously, “ 1110 B Avenue. You got to live in one house your entire life”.
1110 B Avenue and the few blocks surrounding our house defined the safe boundary of childhood for me and my eight siblings. With open fields for dodgeball, kickball and flag football, the space within our boundaries was a child’s paradise. Our spiritual boundaries were equally well defined. No lies, no matter how trivial. No unkind acts. Most of all we were taught we were responsible for our actions. No excuses or blaming others. Avoid conflict whether it be fighting with siblings or “talking back” to our parents. All that was holy and good was embodied by God, the pope, priests and nuns in that order.
I left the safe physical boundaries of my neighborhood to walk the six blocks to Saint Patrick’s school. It was there in this new and foreign territory where I experienced a stark contrast to the secure terrain of our neighborhood.
My third grade teacher, Sister Brazilia, stiff backed, robes swinging, rosary-beads clicking, paced in front of the blackboard. Like a hunter sighting her prey, her eyes locked on mine. “Rae Ann Corrigan, come to the blackboard and solve this math problem.” My stomach was queazy, my brain was frozen. “Come on!,” she taunted me. With her cruel and impatient stare fixed on me, she said, “This is a very simple problem.” I looked down at the floor unable to do anything. I looked around the room hoping someone would give me a whispered answer.
Sister Brazilia’s eyes left mine as she gazed out the classroom door. The tension left my body for a moment. I had the hopeful thought that she was going to set her sights on a new victim, letting me off the hook. To my horror, I heard her say, “Look the first graders are in the hall taking a break. Let’s call in Rae Ann’s first grade sister, Jeanne. “Jeanne, come in here and write the answer to this math problem on the board”.
Eager to get away and back to her class, my little sister quickly wrote the answer on the board and skipped back to the hall to join her classmates. Sister Brazilia’s predatory eyes fixed back on me and then out over the class. “Look everyone, even Rae Ann’s first grade sister can solve this simple problem. To your seat Rae Ann.”
Head down, I walked back to my seat. My throat and chest were tight and tears were stinging the back of my eyelids. I knew with certainty that even though I would tell my mother that my teacher had made me cry, she would not confront her. Sister Brazilia was God’s representative on earth and I was expected to respect her authority.
I continued my journey though grade school feeling powerless against the random acts of cruelty by the Sisters of Mercy until I made an important discovery in ninth grade. I discovered I had a unique ability to throat whistle, and along with that discovery, the ability to use it as in instrument of torture on my tormentor Sister Magala.
Lips slightly open, I constricted the back of my throat and slowly exhaled my breath making an eerie whistling sound. After spending much of the year under Sister Magalas’ reign of terror, characterized by hair pulling, ear pulling and exclamations of “Lady Jane, stop this or that!,” I realized, that while I dare not yell or scream at her, or bat her hands away from my head, I could drive her slowly crazy with my new found talent of throat whistling.
Given I could manage this form of whistling with my mouth completely closed or only slightly open, it was impossible for her to tell who was whistling. Drive her crazy I did. Just as she was warming up to her topic of minorities and social concerns, I would wait for just the right moment, when, impassioned by her speech about the minimized people of the world, her voice reached a crescendo. I would then let out a long slow whistle. Sister Magala would pace about the room, her habit flapping around her legs, veins on her neck and forehead pulsating.
“Who is doing that? I will find out.” As she paced about, I would stop and start the air flow over my vocal cords literally controlling the on and off switch of her frantic pacing.
One day as Sister Magala worked herself into a frenzy over some current social injustice, at a time when I normally would have displayed my new found talent. I didn’t. A sense of peace came over me. Just knowing I could do something was enough.
At this moment, through an admittedly childish and vindictive solution, I experienced a turning point in understanding that I had the power to control my environment, the power to say no to being a victim.
Perhaps it was simply an aha moment or perhaps the month long whistling rebellion had done its work with each trilling note stripping away a sense of powerlessness. It was at that moment I experienced the beginnings of an insight that a position of authority, even if shrouded in the Godly, was not necessarily good or right. As the boundaries of my spiritual world shifted, so did my sense of having a voice.
As I moved into adulthood I realized I could use my voice to reflect my values and challenge things that did not seem right. Early in my professional life in Human Resources, I was faced with a choice about putting that realization into practice. I grappled with the fact that to do so, I would have to pay some heavy costs. It would mean leaving my comfort zone, not waiting for others to address important issues, and facing into conflicts. My choice to use my voice in a way that was congruent with my values would force me to push against my nature and family socialization around challenging authority and dealing with conflict.
My role as head of leadership development for a large corporation both tested and developed my resolve and skills around when and how to use my voice, honoring the values I had committed to. One such example exemplifies such a test and the choices that were before me.
As was my habit, I arrived at my office early to answer emails and sort through my mail. I grabbed an envelope from the pile of interoffice mail, opened it and removed the memo. I registered the fact that the handwriting on the top of the page of the typewritten memo was that of the CEO. His note simply said “To Rae Lesmeister.” I went on to read the contents of this communication.
A verbal sucker punch literally knocked the wind out of me. The memo from an executive, a member of a team I was leading to establish a leadership academy in the corporation, strongly criticized my leadership and the direction our team’s recommendations were headed. What was noteworthy about the memo, is not what it said, rather it was the fact that it was not addressed to me. It was addressed to the Chairman of the Board and the CEO of the company.
Shock turned to fury, and fury gave way to a sick feeling in my stomach. Sick because I knew I had to confront the author of the memo. I worried, I ruminated, I cried, I threw up. After a few days I set a date, giving myself one week before I would to talk the sender of the memo about his behavior.
On day seven I arrived at my office nervous but full of resolve. I sat down at my desk and called the guy, inviting him to coffee in the cafeteria. At 10:00 we sat down at a table at the far end of the cafeteria. He said, “Rae, what is it you want to talk about? What is so urgent you wanted to meet today?” I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my chair. Very slowly I said, “ I DO NOT TRUST YOU.” His face looked startled and registered shock. I simply sat very still, letting silence do its work. I then placed his memo in front of him. His eyes immediately went to the CEO’s handwriting and his expression registered that fact that his subterfuge was exposed, his behavior called out. I expressed my outrage at his failure to honor the most basic standards of teamwork and decency. After a long and difficult conversation, he did take ownership for his inappropriate behavior and we agreed on the rules that would govern our relationship and his team behavior going forward.
A few weeks later I was meeting with the CEO. After we completed our agenda of discussion items, I said “Oh by the way, thank you for forwarding me the memo. We resolved the issues.” “Good.” he said.
Thinking he was pleased that we had resolved some of our points of difference, I went on to provide a little more explanation. “No Rae.” he said, “I meant good that you confronted this person. I knew that you would do it, and I knew it would be very hard for you. Good.”
While I was privileged to act as his leadership coach, in this case, with keen insight, he knew it was I who needed coaching. His “defining moment” coaching approach, combined with a belief in my courage to step up and deal with a tough issue, was pivotal in reinforcing my decision to use my voice to address a challenging situation and pay the associated costs to do so.
As I flashed back to my third grade self, a girl without a voice, and then back to the decision I made early in my career to face into conflict, I leaned back in my chair, smiled, and thought: Yes. Good.
A CALL TO ACTION
Examining Your Values
- Plato is credited with the quote, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” While this statement may be a bit dramatic, it does cause pause for thought. You may have noted in my blog that I described the spiritual boundaries or values that I grew up with. You may also have noticed that as I matured I had to think more deeply about how to interpret and live those values. So consider the important messages, beliefs and values you grew up with. Journal or capture how you interpret and live those values today. Ask yourself if there are values you need to examine more deeply.
- Identify any areas you need to shift, expand or express in different ways to reflect your life experiences, learning and development as a person.
Speaking Your Truth
Consider the following questions as you refine how you can use your voice to honor your values, wisdom and courage:
- Does using your voice mean being proactive and speaking up about things that matter to you? Speaking up when you hear or see things that go against your values?
- Do you use your voice only when you are around people who think the way you do?
- Do you take the risk to express your opinion when you know there will be a frustrating debate? A fruitless monologue?
- How do you decide if it is worth using your energy to use your voice at any given moment?
- When is it best, if ever, to say nothing?
- Have you ever regretted not speaking up?
- It is easier to stand up for others versus yourself?
- What if you are in the minority, what then?
- If you speak an unpopular opinion, do you look for an ally?
- What role does courage play as you choose when and how to use your voice? Wisdom?
Making a Choice
- Reflect on areas where you have honored your worth and values by speaking your truth at critical moments.
- Consider if there are areas where you could make a difference in other’s lives by stepping up or stepping out and expressing your voice.
- Consider an area(s) in your life where you feel called to express your voice.
- Identify what the cost is if you choose to use your voice in this given situation. Determine if you are willing to pay that cost?
- Commit to using your voice as you feel called to do so. Commit to a time, place and approach.