Updated: Sep 29, 2020
A couple of years I took part in a women’s circle - a place devoted to ‘authentic voice’ we were encouraged to share our thoughts & feelings without filter. It was a great group of women & I enjoyed hearing each woman’s perspective - yet as my turn to speak approached I felt tension throughout my neck & chest. My initial impulse was to engage in a discussion around some of the topics that had come up - particularly where I disagreed with the reasoning or wanted clarification. As a kid who grew up in a very debate heavy family I really enjoy getting into these types of conversations. However, my sense was that in this environment that type of communication may be considered brash or insensitive.
In light of the environment I chose to express myself differently then this initial instinct. I took a breath & shared with the group that I felt tension in my body & uncomfortable because I had different beliefs around what had been expressed & was unsure how to bring these up without creating tension or conflict. I also shared how much I appreciate dialogue, civil disagreement, & uncovering bias whether my own or another’s from a place of curiosity. After I finished sharing others in the group mirrored my feelings & it lead into discussions around these sensitive topics - though in a very different way then I might debate with my family.
I remember wondering at the time what authentic communication even means? On one hand there is the coherent expression of our inner world, our personality, our style yet on the other there is also a need for sensitivity to the environment we are in.
The concept of ‘authenticity’ over-arches a vast societal dialogue which includes leadership, business, wellness, arts, psychology, & communication. Yet this idea of being authentic & moreover the simplified marketing of this concept can lead to an incomplete approach to voice & expression. At its best authenticity is about being true to & expressing our whole self - yet when practiced with rigidity it can ironically pull us into a tribalist identity which insists conformity to the group.
What does it mean to be Authentic?
Before looking at the limits of authentic communication it’s helpful to arrive on a definition of authenticity that is focused on communication. Two such definitions from the Merriam Webster's Dictionary include; true to one’s personality, sprit or character, & not false or imitation.
As someone who advocates for authenticity in communication I have arrived at the following definition; Authentic communication is to be present to one’s personal, thoughts, emotions, feelings, & values, & to honestly express oneself in a way that is coherent with this self understanding.
A key component of this definition is that it allows space for the fluid nature of one’s self. As we are ever-evolving our voice & communication style will naturally grow, refine, & change with time & experience. By acknowledging this nature ‘authentic’ communication can reflect & support this growth.
However, sometimes our idea of what it means to be ‘authentic’ or a strict adherence to authenticity may actually limit our growth in communication.
Growing Beyond the Limits of ‘Authentic Communication’
An adherence to being authentic may detract us from developing our voice & communication skills. The following offers a non-exhaustive list that highlights potential limitations (either literal or perceived) of authenticity in communication.
Limit #1: Authenticity Equals Truth
Authenticity implies that something is free from falsehood. In terms of communication it means there is an honest reflection of what we genuinely feel, think, & believe. However, those perceptions are true only in that they accurately represent what we believe at the time. They are not necessarily true in themselves.
As conditioned beings we are subject to our personal biases & experiences. If we believe that what we feel or perceive is absolute truth we lose the ability to learn & grow. These biases may even create the very problem we imagine in self-fulfilling prophecy. For example; if I believe that you never listen to me I’m more likely to speak in a demanding tone & thus make it less likely you will listen.
Effective authenticity is a balance between being aware of our perceptions without holding rigid attachment to them. Understanding that these are our interpretations of our world we are more receptive to taking in pertinent information & allowing our understanding to grow. If however we attach our identity to a belief then we block the potential to grow & refine.
Limit #2: Inauthenticity is Bad
When authenticity is valued in-authenticity may be de-valued. However, things we deem ‘inauthentic’ in communication may be a necessary means to learning & integrating a more diverse communication style. These lessons become authentic as they integrate through practice- eventually offering us a greater range in authentic communication.
Imitation is often viewed as inauthentic & as something to be avoided. Yet, imitation is an effective way to try on & play with different voices & communication styles. “Fake it till you make it” can be a useful exercise in developing new skills. Over time we discover the aspects of these voices that are effective & integrate them with our own style & approach. When it comes to communication emulating role models that effectively express the skills we wish to develop is useful. Active listening, assertive communication, leaderships skills, & even dexterity in our singing & speaking voices can all developed from some level of imitation. By approaching emulation as a method of learning it may feel more coherent to our personal values & beliefs.
In work environments & certain social situations there may be an element of performance. We want to put our best foot forward & present ourselves in a way that is collected & professional. We can appreciate that when we go the doctor she doesn’t spend our session talking about her personal problems. There is a time & place to share different aspects of ourself & being able to navigate & self regulate is important.
The feeling of ‘being on’ can be exhausting especially when we are projecting a persona that is in contrast to our inner world. Authenticity in those situations requires a level of integration. When we are ‘on’ & at the same time expressing ourself in a way that is consistent with our beliefs & values we are more likely to be received & less likely to feel exhausted. The playground of this ‘performative’ aspect may even provide an opportunity through which we discover a greater level of authenticity as we clarify the root of our message through trial & error.
Sensitivity & Impact
There is balance required between being honest with ourself & sensitive to our environment. If our interpretation of authenticity means that we must speak in our way regardless of the environment we may limit the likelihood of being heard & understood. It’s possible to remain true to our message while adjusting the way we speak to meet our audience. Such sensitivity demonstrates respect & opens the possibility for greater impact & understanding.
Limit #3: Authenticity Means Speaking Up
Authenticity is sometimes perceived to mean that we 'should' speak up. Yet, speaking up is not always be the most effective or even authentic approach.
Say What’s on your Mind (No Filter!)
Saying what’s on our mind without filter or considering our environment may have substantial unintended or divisive consequences.
I appreciate environments where I can speak freely, debate loudly, & learn how to actively engage without taking things personally. It’s not always easy but there is a lot to learn from these environments. However, there is a less savoury side to ‘speaking our minds’ & that’s when we feel entitled to speak up regardless of the environment. A reasonable level of sensitivity to our environment & the ability to discern the necessity of our words will ultimately increase the level of our impact.
Always Be Open
Another by-product of being more authentic is the sometimes unintended expectation that we should always be open. There are substantial benefits to a more open approach in communication but it can also be taken too far. Our privacy & personal world is valuable. Thus, our openness needs to be balanced with what is comfortable (or acceptably uncomfortable) to us as, what ensures a healthy boundary, & offers an acceptable level of sensitivity to our environment.
The Power of Silence & Listening
In some cases we may believe that being authentic is to be blunt about what we think or feel & make sure we are heard. However we are most likely to feel a sense of connection to ourself & our audience when there is a balance of silence & listening. This allows us to understand & address what is being said & express ourselves as we are instead of where we 'think' we are or 'should' be.
Authenticity as Integration
Ultimately authenticity is to communicate in a way that is coherent to our values, beliefs, personality, & growth. As we are evolving beings that which is authentic to us one day may refine and evolve over time. As our self awareness grows it is likely that that which feels authentic to us will grow as well.
Re-examining our beliefs & values is helpful to us as we refine the ways in which we show up & evolve our inner narratives to support this expression of our authentic self. Authenticity needs to be balanced with our growing nature & held in a way that allows this learning while maintaining personal integrity. By examining where we are rigid in our ideas we create opportunity to understand nuance - the complexities where growth occurs. The practice of self awareness & coherently expressing our inner truths will over time, both deepen our understanding & our ability to communicate with a greater breadth of empathy & connection.
Ultimately it’s okay to try on different voices & skills. Exploration of ourself is the way in which we find greater authenticity as it provides a playground to come to know our self.
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About the Author Amy Thiessen is a coach, writer, & musician who focuses on helping others find & express a their voice with resonance. Her unique approach works with the wholistic mechanism of voice utilizing somatic awareness, psychology, mindfulness, spiritual practice, & vocal techniques of toning & song.