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.