What Lilly Ledbetter and Poet Mary Oliver Teach Us About Negotiation

We follow poets and writers and artists who speak our language and read them threadbare. Dog-eared they give themselves up to us and we ingest them as if paper were edible. (My dog will tell you it is.) These thinkers and inventors become the voices of our value systems and take their place beside our parents and teachers and mentors. And then we design our anthems and beliefs and fashion our lives around them, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

And one day in the middle of life’s traffic jam, we read Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey. We slam on the brakes, take our favorite green pen and scribble one line, a random bit of literary righteousness into our journals. And then we take it a step further and rip that page out of our journals and tape it to the mirror and tell ourselves we’re going to live by it.

“...Determined to save the only life you could save.”

And then another 10 years pass, and our friend tells us we need to pay attention to Lilly Ledbetter. We aren’t really listening so we have to ask our friend to repeat herself. Lilly Ledbetter? She is no poet, we think. No writer. And your friend says, no, she’s just an everyday ghandi whose struggle for paycheck fairness will set a new benchmark for women in the workplace. And we say huh? and wonder what it all has to do with us, c'mon really.

No, you c'mon. In that lapsed decade, we were just like Lilly. We sat back and waited. Because we’re all Lilly Ledbetter in some measure. And now Lilly and Mary are aligned and sending us the same message:

Wake up! Wake the hell up and be conscious!

Be straight about it: we can hardly ask for help doing the laundry much less cobble out a plan for a raise and present it to our boss. We’re squeamish about asking for even a reasonable fee for our services (and when we do, our bargaining partner laughs all the way to the bank about the great deal he just got). Here it is even straighter:

  • We simply can’t ask our neighbor to stop parking in our parking spot.
  • We simply can’t ask our co-worker to stop talking so we can get some work done. 
  • We simply can’t say no, even when yes is the last thing we wanted to say. 
  • We simply can't carve out time for our painting and writing.
  • We simply can’t express our disappointment about not being included in planning meetings on projects for which we’re responsible.
  • We simply refuse to sing our own praises and when other women do, we chide them behind their backs for being arrogant.
  • We simply couldn't be a bother.
  • We simply can't be bothered.

We Simply Can't Get What We Want Until We're Awake...

...and we're mad, and seeing red BMWs everywhere! And this is when negotiation becomes transformational. And fun. Now we are learning to negotiate all the moving parts of our lives and bumping up against our discomfort about being in discomfort. We are moving into the field of impasse, into the field of conflict, and realizing that this is the true starting point for getting what we want. And we're doing what Mary Oliver asked us to do all those years ago. We're saving ourselves in a self/others/world progression. And when we do that, we can take our place—shoulder to shoulder with Lilly Ledbetter and transform everything.