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Mountians and Lake

Who’s Listening? The Power of a Single Voice


We often hear about the power of one voice, the single voice in the room that makes the most sense, brings the group back to the important question, and cuts through hostility, intransigence, or just plain foolishness. These are important voices, but they are also often very quiet and need encouragement to be heard so the rest of us can benefit from their perspectives.


Not all single voices are positive, though, and they can not only escalate a conflict but create one where none previously existed. I’ve been watching several singular voices and wondering how they got the power to move a whole group with a single statement or action, and not in a good way.


Here are some examples with which you may be familiar.


The complaining voice:

In just a few weeks decisions made by government entities to take action based on one complaint have been reported. In one state capital, a series of murals depicting the history of the labor movement in that state were removed citing a complaint that they were not sufficiently pro-business. In another instance, a home owner was fined, threatened with legal action, and ordered to paint over a mural she had commissioned for the wall of the back of her property facing an alley because one person didn’t like the art.


Neither case cited thousands of complaints or even several complaints, just one, but context can be everything and, in the case of the labor murals, that action was taken after a change in political leadership, so maybe they didn’t need more than one complaint. In neither case was it reported that opinions from others in the community were sought before making a decision. Unfortunately, these actions were taken with little or no notice and with the power of the state behind them, so contradictory points of view could not change the outcomes. Power and timing can be everything.


The loud voice:

In some groups the loudest voice highjacks the discussion to the point where no one else wants to contribute, especially if you happen to disagree. We have all watched meetings fail as the discussion veered off track to accommodate one person’s agenda. The persistence of the voice, especially if it is negative or argumentative, discourages others from trying to state another point of view, so other perspectives are never even heard, let alone explored and considered.


Nothing much will be accomplished unless a skilled facilitator quiets that one voice at least for a while, but by the time control of the meeting is regained, the rest of the group may have dropped out of the discussion and other voices have been stilled anyway.


The anonymous voice:

Congress has a process whereby one member can put a hold on a nomination without being identified or giving a reason, but the hold demanded by the member must be made anyway. It’s an anonymous NO, and there is very little anyone can do about it.


Anonymity is necessary in many cases, but when an entire organization is prevented from making a decision, the anonymity serves little purpose except the personal agenda and power of the unknown person. In our organizations, the back channel communications and rumors that constitute the anonymous voices are difficult to address, and they undermine relationships and decision-making. Open communications are vital if groups are to function based on trust.


Rumors and back channel communications indicate the lack of trust among group members that make open communication impossible, and indicate the most important issue the group faces. Until trust is restored, voices will remain dangerously anonymous.


The first voice:

When participating in a negotiation, some people ask the other person what it would take to reach a settlement to get a sense of how closely one’s expectations match the other party’s. If you are far apart, you may be surprised by how much more the settlement will cost you, or conversely, how much less is expected than you were prepared to pay, and you might be very relieved. No matter what the result, you now have the advantage because you have more information than the other person; you know both of your expectations and the other party knows only his or her own.


The first statement of expectations establishes the starting point, and all negotiations are either, a defense of, or an argument against, the first statement. Take a look at the debate over a budget proposal that includes revamping Medicate, Medicaid, and Social Security. The plan is on the table first, and it is the one that will drive the discussion. All other plans will be seen as responses, not as new ideas, and they will have less credibility. Being first has its advantages. It’s like being unseen at the top of the hill and being able to throw stones at anyone who challenges your position, but it also means you might get overrun.


The lonely voice:

Often the lonely voice is the one that keeps repeating the same message over and over again, but it is never heard until, unfortunately, the message comes true, and people are pushed to action that may be too little, too late, and resisted. Whistle blowers are often in this category and are too often proven right even as they go unheard or are ridiculed. A whistle blower tried for years to warn the SEC about the Madoff Ponzi scheme, but no one would listen.


Also in this category is the moral voice, which is often very lonely indeed. A prestigious international scientific association decided to change publishers of their award-winning magazine and go with a non-scientific publisher, one that had a reputation for publishing relatively trashy other magazines. One of the board members was astounded that the organization would risk its reputation with this change, but lost the vote to keep the scientific publisher. At the next meeting, he raised the issue again, this time with more information and responses from members of the association, and had the decision overturned.


Eventually, the lonely voice, the moral voice, is recognized and even joined by others, but they may be similarly ignored or undermined as they slog, unsupported, toward change.


The desperate voice:

The previous voices may be irritating and distracting, and they can probably be managed with some preparation and even difficulty, but the desperate voice is the one none of us want to experience. During the Viet Nam war, a Buddhist monk set himself on fire to protest the war. A merchant in the Middle East prayed before driving his car into a barrier and exploding it and himself to protest government corruption that made it impossible for him to earn enough to support his family. These people have nothing left to work for or hope for and think they have nothing left to lose. War does that to people, and so do years of inequity or discrimination or humiliation in the workplace that can result in workplace violence. Desperate voices have the most power to inflict the most harm, and unless we listen, we can be caught unaware, unprepared, and hurt.


The power of one single voice can change things dramatically, for good or ill, so we have to listen carefully and decide whether to challenge that voice or support it, to join that voice or speak against it, or even more insulting, to ignore it. It’s not an easy choice, but doing nothing should not be an option.

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