May 23, 2024

just once

a winding road passes in front of a large granite mountain outside snoqualmie pass
photo caption: a narrow road winds in front of a granite mountain near snoqualmie pass. not pictured: the fantastic tamales i always get when i’m in central washington (not pictured because i already ate them).

Last week I was in Yakima for the annual Washington Food Coalition conference. I spent three very full days learning, talking, laughing, and (of course) eating well. On the last day, I ran into a friend/former coworker of mine. I think of him like a little brother in the way that my mentor thinks of me as her little brother.

As we talked, I shared that I met someone who I wanted to talk to about a food access issue. I only know her on a professional level and not super well yet, not even as colleagues. The issue had been on my mind for years, but it picked back up again in recent months. The topic felt too radical, too controversial, to broach so early into knowing her. “How many meetings,” I asked him, “should I wait before I bring it up with her?”

He grinned for a second like it was a trick question. “The first one? Just once, right?”

how to raise your voice

Even those of us lacking formal power may have access to other forms of it. In their book DEI Deconstructed, Lily Zheng describes six types of power:

  • Formal power: the right to request behavior from another
  • Reward power: the ability to promise (monetary or non-monetary) compensation to influence behavior
  • Coercive power: the ability to threaten punishment to influence behavior
  • Expert power: the ability to influence behavior by possessing greater expertise or ability
  • Informational power: the ability to influence behavior by possessing greater information
  • Referent power: the ability to build rapport and influence behavior through charisma

In a hierarchy, I’d expect to see formal, reward, and coercive power at play in most situations. But expert and informational power can be accessible to anyone. Referent power derives from the relationships that each of us have with each other. A union drive, or even a strike, comes from the expert and referent power of the workers. They hold skills that are hard to replace and they stick together by trusting in each other.

Approach the problem as a collaboration. Chances are, you’ll never have someone announce to a room in a voice they’d use if they found a lost pen: “Hey, does anyone need support on a good idea that they think is politically risky?” Be assertive about your request and pose it as a challenge to solve together. Even if you both hold different types of power, there are still ways you can support each other.

Collaboration can’t happen between just one or two people. This is especially true in the nonprofit sector. Represent, don’t speak for, the people you work for. Leaders may be far removed from the people using services but have no issue speaking on their behalf. No matter how close we think we are, there are people who are closer. Share your power by bringing them in, not leaving them out.

Begin with curiosity, not confrontation. As an angry young upstart, confrontation was my default. I assumed that most people were as aware of a problem as I was. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. People are busy. Everyone has things on their plate. It would be wonderful if we could know everything we ought to take action on. Most months in the past few years felt like there were new global crises happening every day. It isn’t possible for the average person to keep up, much less have awareness on every issue that matters to you.

Instead, begin by gauging that awareness. “Have you heard of [this issue] before?” Approach the question with curiosity to lessen any defensive feelings they might have. Learn what they know. Listen closely to their concerns. Before you respond to them, restate their concerns to make sure you understand. Channel informational power by offering to share with them anything they don’t.

Don’t negotiate with yourself beforehand. So many people, seeking compromise, moderate their ideas out of fear. This often backfires (especially in congress). In the social services sector, we may feel inclined to bring forward an ask that feels easier—to us. “Yes, we know that every student needs to eat lunch, but that’s awfully expensive. What if we had some sort of means test instead? That way children with parents who earn a little more than the limit can go without.”

The worst of this happens when we concede on things the decision-maker doesn’t even care about. “What if instead we made milk more expensive? That would make a small offset to the costs of the free lunches.” You’ve now made it harder to solve the problem. The people you’re working with might not even care about the concession! Instead, measure the cost of any compromise against the ultimate goals. Will it be worth it? Would the people who live with the consequences agree with you?

getting to yes

Decision-makers can’t say yes to a request until you ask. When should you ask? If you’re in proximity to power, any type, you have an obligation to try as soon as you can. It might not be the first time you meet someone. But don’t spend forever waiting for the perfect time. Not everyone can afford to wait.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]