#591       Innovative Leader        Volume 12, Number 12             December 2003

The Art of Authenticity
by Terry Felber

Terry Felber is a motivational speaker in Colorado Springs, CO (phone 719-272-8113).  He is author of Am I Making Myself Clear? (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2002). 

In communication, it is important to say what you mean and mean what you say—in a way that promotes positive relationships.  This is what we call the art of authenticity, being real with the people around you.  A lack of authenticity can lead to strained relationships, where communication is clouded and feelings and intentions are hard to determine.  Keeping the lines of communication clear and honest are important elements in relating to others. 

Be Assertive

  • Do you find it awkward to talk to people you don’t know?
  • Do you allow other people to cut in while you are making an important point?
  • Do you take, without complaint, a poorly prepared report?
  • Do you have trouble communicating what you’re really trying to say?

If you answered “yes” to some of these questions, it could be that you need a dose of positive assertiveness.  Remember that the words we use communicate important things about us to others.  Do your words and actions say that you are confident, or afraid?  Do they speak of a positive self-image, or a weak internal voice?  Do they tell others that you believe in the value of your work, or that you really don’t have an opinion?  Do they say, “Walk on me,” or “I’m going somewhere”?  Do your words and actions accurately depict the way you feel inside?  If not, you’re not being real with those around you.  Authenticity calls for a certain degree of assertiveness.

Your actions and words fall into one of three categories:  passiveness, aggressiveness, or assertiveness.

Passiveness is generally equated with a low self-esteem.  This trait allows others to “walk all over us.”  It exudes weakness and timidity.  It lacks the confidence of genuine leadership.  Passiveness reflects an inability to communicate what you actually think or feel.  Examples of passive statements might be:

  • “I don’t care what strategy we use” (when you really do).
  • “Whatever you think…” (when you have an opinion).

Aggressiveness is one-sided.  It fails to take into account the other person’s feelings.  Aggressiveness usually ends up taking the form of put-downs and sarcasm.  It leads to defensiveness and resistance.  People don’t like to be controlled.  Examples of aggressive statements might be:

  • “No one around here does anything to help.”
  • “Your team doesn’t appreciate what we do for you.”
  • “Do it because I say so.”

Assertiveness, on the other hand, communicates forthrightness and actually wins people over by empowering them.  It is a respect-based balance between passiveness and aggressiveness.  It allows you to authentically express your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs without damaging important relationships.  It takes into account the other person’s viewpoint, and generally leads to cooperation rather than defensiveness.  The following are five keys for developing good assertive skills:

1. Use specifics rather than generalities.

  • “I just didn’t feel good about the presentation.”
  • “Something about the way you communicate really bothers me.”
  • “I can’t explain what I mean.  I just don’t like it.”

Have you ever had someone communicate in these kinds of generalities, and you had no idea what he or she was talking about?  People understand more clearly if we give them specifics.  Generalities often make the other person defensive and closed.  Specifics provide a fair playing field for others to receive what we’re trying to say.  As you approach a person about a particular issue, be sure to talk to them clearly about things that are important to the solution of the problem.  Talk in terms of individuals (not “someone said”), concrete events, and dates.

2. Point to behaviors rather than to motives.

It is very difficult to determine the motives of someone else’s heart.  When you question motives, you are personally attacking a person.  Instead, talk about specific behavior and how that behavior affects how you feel about the issue.  Behaviors are measurable, while motives are subjective and can be easily misinterpreted.

3.  Remain objective rather than judgmental.

Take time to understand, rather than jump to a hasty conclusion. Get the facts straight and try to understand how the other person sees what you’re seeing.  Remain objective, rather than become judgmental and critical.  Keep an open mind as you enter into conversations, and you’ll win the attention and affection of those you are talking to.  Too often we press our opinions rather than take the time to really listen to the other person.  We end up “shutting that person out” and missing potential opportunities.

Nobody likes a critic.  People are attracted to people who like and appreciate them, not to people who judge and condemn them.  The latter only closes the door of communication.

4.  Get right to the point.

Winston Churchill said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever.  Use a pile driver.  Hit the point once.  Then come back and hit it again.  Then a third time—a tremendous whack.”  When it comes to assertiveness, the Prime Minister was right.  Don’t skirt around issues and confuse your listener.  Deal with the real core of the subject.  Your listener will appreciate your authenticity and directedness.  If you’re trying to push your opinion, tactfully get to the point. 

5.  Talk to the right person.

As anyone who has spent time in a garden knows, weeds can be deceptive enemies.  In order to get rid of a weed, you’ve got to get to its root.  The same is true in dealing with people.  In order to “get the job done,” you’ve got to get to the right source.  This translates into talking to the appropriate person about the issue you’re dealing with.  Don’t waste your time (or the time of the other person) by talking to someone who can’t offer you a solution.

As you begin to practice genuine assertiveness, keep in mind that you will probably encounter some aggressive behavior in reaction to you.  Be prepared to appropriately handle put-downs and defensiveness with good people skills.  But don’t give in to the temptation to revert back into a passive posture.  You’ll rob yourself of the benefits that assertiveness will bring to your situation.  Here is an example of appropriate assertiveness:  “When you’re late for our appointments, I feel frustrated because it throws off my schedule for the rest of the day.  Would it help you if we schedule our Monday meeting at 9:00 rather than 8:00?”

Be Self-Aware

One of the keys to genuine authenticity is seeing yourself accurately, and then determining to continually improve.  Other people often see us in a different light than we see ourselves.  Learning how to receive correction and make change is an important key to success in life.  The more open and authentic you are, the freer people will be in sharing their feelings about you.  Don’t get defensive.  These tips encourage others to help you grow:

 1. Give your colleagues permission to tell you the truth.

I once heard someone say that if your enemies are the first to tell you the truth, you don’t have any friends.  Give your friends and colleagues permission to be honest with you, and don’t punish them when they are.  Authentic people are the ones that aren’t afraid of knowing when they’ve made a mistake.

2.  Don’t make excuses.

For every fault in life, we can find an excuse.  Someone put it this way, “An excuse is a lie stuffed with reason.”  Make a conscious effort not to make excuses when someone offers you constructive correction.  The greatest leaders in history knew how to receive criticism and then make the necessary changes.  Your genuineness is apparent when you take responsibility for a mistake rather than justify it.

3.  Don’t blame other people.

Accept responsibility for your actions.  Poor communicators and poor leaders blame others for their own faults, and because of this they never seem to find true success in life.  It’s the ones who accept responsibility and search for change within themselves that become great leaders.

Abraham Lincoln said, “He has the right to criticize who has the heart to help.”  It’s one thing to simply find fault.  But it’s an entirely different thing to accurately see problems and offer solutions.  When someone gives you constructive input, as long as his or her desire is to genuinely help you, be grateful.

It’s not always easy to master the art of authenticity.  You have to be real, and to be willing to tell the truth.  But in the long run, you’ll be happier and more productive.  Being genuine in relationships will help others believe what you say, especially when you encourage them.

Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishers from the book Am I Making Myself Clear?, copyright date 2002, by Terry Felber.

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