Authentic communication is like the "Brigadoon" of business life. We often talk about it — and those who are able to achieve it — in hushed, revered tones. There are those people that are able to consistently present their authentic self, and we applaud their ability to communicate so openly. Then there are those who chase after that ability, waiting and hoping they'll be able to magically reveal something about themselves when they interact with others.
The word "authenticity" itself is certainly one that people like to toss around and use as a compliment or a selling point. Because of this, it has become buzzy: "They're the most authentic speaker I've ever seen!" In terms of our communication, nailing down an actual definition of what that means can be more difficult. What does it mean to be authentic?
Just for kicks, I thought I'd see what happened when I simply googled "authenticity" for a textbook definition. The first one that came up was "the quality of being authentic." (Which was kind of funny, and seemed to prove my point.) Further search revealed this:
Definition of authentic (Merriam-Webster)
1a : worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact: paints an authentic picture of our society
b : conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features: an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse
c : made or done the same way as an original: authentic Mexican fare
3: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character: is sincere and authentic with no pretensions.
(In the interest of space, I've removed the definitions related to music, but you get the point.) I find it interesting that both the idea of "conforming to an original" and "not an imitation" are present in this definition. (Different uses of the word to be sure, but still an odd juxtaposition.) Business-wise, what people are drawn to most is #3 — being true to one's own personality, spirit, or character.
But again, we're back to...what exactly does that MEAN?!
Actors spend years of study trying to learn how to be authentic; often referred to as "being honest on stage". Some people think that the key to acting is simply layering other qualities on top of who you are. Not so. Before you can set out to build a character that's separate from you, you need to learn how to simply be honest in any scenario. And to do so, you have to be comfortable just being present on stage, and being YOU.
Clearly, this idea of honesty and presentation of the true self is attractive in so many realms. My guess is that this is simply be because, somewhere in our gut, we feel that when someone is sharing who they are with us, we can more deeply trust them. We want to work with, and listen to, people that we trust. As such, authenticity has earned its buzzword status — we mention it because the concept is attractive; it's attractive because it points towards trust.
For our purposes today, let's define authentic communication as the ability to share parts of our true selves with our audience without layering other qualities over our own. When we look at it in this light, we inch closer to the idea of what makes authenticity so attractive in business communication. Instead of trying to put on more things that we're not (Be funnier! Be more serious!), we're simply laying bare the things we are.
In my experience, there are a few qualities of personality that pop out to me when I meet someone new. Everyone is different (obviously...) and these parts of self seem almost like fingerprints. When these qualities are shared and not obscured, they truly give insight into our personality. To me personally, these are things like:
- Sense of humor. (A big one for me.)
- Vocal identity. (How our voice sounds, how we use it, and how we feel about it.)
- Loquaciousness... or not. (Neither is right or wrong, just certainly an insight.)
- Ability/comfort with sharing personal experience.
- A balance between talking and listening. (Sometimes, when people need to speak ALL the time, this is a layer they're putting on.)
However, the unpopular opinion is that authenticity can be a double-edged sword in certain situations. It goes without saying that not every part of our personality is appropriate for every scenario. Further complicating the matter is that authenticity, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. What one person deems authentic, another may not. So our quest for authenticity is complicated both by situation and perception.
Let's update our current definition. If we previously said that authentic communication is the ability to share qualities of our true selves with our listeners without layering other qualities over our own, perhaps we should adjust it to the ability to appropriately share qualities of our true selves, without layering other qualities over our own, in a way our audience can perceive. Whew!
Now that we've taken the idea from buzzy to more concrete, how do we start working towards authentic communication? "Knowing oneself" is one of the great philosophical challenges of all time. Luckily, we can start small. Do a bit of self-examination to try and understand what makes you "you" in your daily interactions.
If you had to put some words to it, how would you describe yourself? This is difficult. Not only can it be uncomfortable to look deeply at ourselves, but it can be hard to know whether or not we're giving and honest assessment. That said, give it a go. Come up with a list of some words or phrases that you feel describe you. Jump off from here:
- I feel my best quality is_________________.
- I wish I was better about_______________.
- I'm most proud of _____________________.
- I'm least proud of _____________________.
If you had to guess, how do you think OTHER PEOPLE describe you? Once you've got your list of self-perception, attempt to see if you can imagine your way into another's brain. Think of a few specific people, and come up with reasons to support your guess. Here's an example:
Person in question: My co-worker, Sarah.
I feel my best quality is: My ability to listen.
Do I think Sarah would agree or disagree: Agree.
Why?: I make an effort to listen more than I talk when we're working on a project together.
How else might Sarah describe me?: Trustworthy, hard-working.
Why?: I've come through in times when she needed help, I've put in long hours on our team.
Be sure you're really trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Be honest about your interactions. Reinforcing your own perception won't help if you know you've had negative experiences with someone. Try to look at the good and the bad.
Am I comfortable sharing things about myself? Or not? I've worked with professionals who have no problem making things personal, talking about their struggles, triumphs, and overall experiences in a business setting. However, I've also encountered folks who would prefer not to do so at all. Now, a single-minded focus on your work can be part of your authentic self, but you've still got to be able to let people in so they can reap the benefits of your knowledge.
Start by trying to determine which category you think you fall into. Then, ask these follow ups:
- Do I wish I fell into the other category?
- Does this style of communication feel like me?
- What message am I sending my audience about who I am? Is that the one I want them to know?
Again, no right or wrong here. You're just getting to the bottom of your own experience.
When do I feel most like myself? When do I feel least like myself? If you've ever been in the middle of something and suddenly thought "This doesn't feel like me at all...", then you know what I'm getting at here. There are activities that feel like part of who we are. Knowing what those activities are (and aren't) — and being able to articulate why — is a window in to qualities you can bring to your communication.
Here's an example. One of the times I feel most like myself is on stage. Why? Because I love sharing stories, and making people think and question what they feel by interacting with a play. So, an easy way to share my authentic self would be through storytelling.
These are just some quick ideas to get you started. I would love to make authentic communication more than just a bunch of buzzwords. Part of my goal is to help people be more themselves in all of their interactions. However, in order to do that, we've each got to investigate and learn what feels real to us. Once we've done that, we can work within those ideas and shape interactions into ones that impact our audiences, rather than just talk about being able to do so.