“What do I do,” a client asked me once, “when someone is droning on and on about a subject I don’t care about? Do I just sit quietly and pretend to care? That doesn’t seem authentic.”
That word, “authentic”—it gets us in trouble sometimes.
We think if something doesn’t come naturally, then it’s not “authentic” for us. We forget that eating with a fork, using the toilet, and writing our names all seemed like unnatural acts at one point in our lives.
A behavior, in and of itself, is neither authentic nor inauthentic for you. If I pay you a compliment, you can say “Thank you” with sincerity. Or, your “Thank you” could be a pretense. It’s the motivation behind your act that determines whether or not you’re being authentic.
I used to be a piano teacher. Never once, in all my years of teaching, when I’d tell a student, “Sit up straight to play with more power” or “Release tension so you can move your arms more freely” or “You need to breathe to improve your tone,” did anyone ever reply with, “But that doesn’t feel authentic.”
When you’re learning an instrument, you know you have to learn new skills—new ways of moving your body—to play the instrument well. You never stop to consider whether or not that movement or skill is authentic. It might be new, it might be difficult, it might even be uncomfortable, but your body is capable. It just takes practice.
Now, I coach people on presence, interpersonal communication, and presentation skills, and I say some very similar things:
- “Sit up straight to speak with more power.”
- “Release tension so you can move your arms more freely.”
- “You need to breathe to improve your tone.”
But often when I ask clients to move or stand in a certain way, they balk and say things like, “But that doesn’t feel authentic.” What they really mean is it’s not their habit.
When you’re communicating, your body IS the instrument. If you want to communicate well, you need to move and act appropriately. If you haven’t been doing so, it’s going to feel a little… weird. But your body is capable. It just takes practice.
It especially feels new and different and uncomfortable because we associate certain postures and movements and behaviors with feelings. And for good reason—it’s natural, for example, to sit up straight when you’re feeling confident. So it’s natural to feel a little uncomfortable sitting up straight if you don’t feel confident. But is doing so inauthentic?
Here’s the thing about feelings: They don’t define you. Feelings are transitory. They are REAL, and they need to be acknowledged and experienced. Yet they aren’t your personality or your character or your values. They change.
We believe that to be authentic we need to express our current feelings: if we’re bored, we need to convey our boredom; if we’re angry, we need to express our anger; if we’re nervous, we need to let everyone know how nervous we are. If we don’t, we’re being “inauthentic.”
Certainly, expressing your true feelings is authentic. And you need to be able to do that. Yet because feelings are transitory, it is just as authentic to access the unchangeable parts of yourself—your character and values—and express THOSE, even when they are at odds with your feelings.
So maybe you’re bored by a conversation, but you also value your relationship with the speaker. Or maybe you’re angry at a bad driver on the road, but you also value your safety. Or maybe you’re nervous about a job interview, but you also value your skills and experience. Acknowledge the negative feelings. They’re real. They’re present. They deserve to be acknowledged.
But then, let them lie. Leave those feelings where they are. Focus instead on what you value. Then you find an authentic motivation for appropriate behavior. You can communicate effectively from an authentic place.
If you want to be a better listener when someone bores you, or a better driver when someone angers you, or a better interviewer when you’re nervous, you’ve got to dig deeper. Tap in to what you deeply value, and choose, instead, to express THAT.
“There’s a time to interrupt,” I told my client. “Most of the time, though, you will authentically listen with patience when you remind yourself of your values. You value connection. You value respect. You value relationships. Let those values guide your behavior instead of your momentary feelings, and you’ll communicate both appropriately AND authentically.”
Change your communication, change your life.