Being Authentic: It's Not as Scary as You Think

04/22/2015 06:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015


One of the most interesting comments I hear from clients is, "Well, I said and did the right things. Does it matter what I thought or felt?"

This is often a response to digging into the internal dialogue about a given event or person. The client knows how to behave professionally, and dismisses the fact that he or she is feeling frustrated, angry, or powerless about a situation and focuses only on the words and actions, which are generally in line with how one "should" behave. This set of professional expectations or "shoulds" is like a suit of armor, shielding the true person within, as if he or she isn't worthy to bring into the light.

Words and actions do, of course, matter. And so do the underlying thoughts and feelings. As human beings, we are generally terrible actors. We sense the feelings of other people from body language, the tension in a voice, the tone, pauses and other indications that there is a different internal dialogue from the one being spoken aloud. We not only sense incongruity between words and body language, but we then create a story to interpret that gap -- usually in a way that reinforces our own beliefs, and often in a way that does not improve the relationship. Someone who appears grumpy must not like us, or must not like their job, or just has a bad attitude. We rarely imagine that they have a sick spouse, or had a car wreck, or suffer in other ways seen or unseen. Similarly, others interpret our lack of a smile or sigh or crossed arms to mean something about how we must be feeling about them, their project, or work.

We cannot be responsible for how others choose to interpret the world. We can be aware of the impact our inner dialogue and feelings have on how we are perceived, and work to make our actions and body language more consistent. If we want to be perceived as leaders, it is important to be willing to be "seen" and not hide behind prescribed professional behaviors. It is the gap between our words and our apparent emotions that keep others from fully trusting that we are honest and authentic. Research on about body language that declares it to be more important than words is referring specifically to these kinds of incongruent situations. When words and body language match, the words matter most. When words and body language are out of sync, we trust the body language more.

So how can we begin to close this gap? First of all, we have to be willing to embrace the feelings we do have and to understand where they come from. When clients resist this self-reflection, it is usually because there is an underlying fear of facing parts of themselves they may not love, or admitting that they are not as positive as they would like to be. No one likes to admit that they have frequent negative thoughts, and few of us dwell on those thoughts. Nevertheless, those thoughts have an impact on how we feel, and how we are perceived by others. If we continue to leave them unexamined, they become the 800-pound gorilla in the room that only gets bigger the longer we ignore him.

Brene Brown researched this ability to be vulnerable and not only face but embrace the less-than-perfect parts of ourselves as the key to happiness, success, resilience and leadership. Like many of us, she struggled with this concept, until she felt it herself and broke down her barriers to seeing herself as a complete, flawed and worthy human being.

Stepping past fear and holding those feelings and flaws up to the light allows us to begin to notice the beliefs behind those feelings and consider alternative beliefs that would help us engage more positively. It allows us to take the feelings a little less seriously and even change them or let them shift on their own.

The ability to change begins when we can see that there is something worth changing. The first step is facing that fear, and examining our thoughts and feelings honestly, and then deciding what is working and what might benefit from change. We can do this only when we feel that we are fundamentally worthwhile and whole, and that making changes not only does not admit weakness, but is actually a sign of great strength.

Where are you covering up a weakness or unproductive feelings or beliefs, and letting it shift how you are perceived? What would it mean to own that fully as part of yourself, admit it out loud, and then move past it?

The truth is, we can all see you hiding in there anyway. Your people all know your weaknesses -- they are just hoping you will admit them, too. Come out from behind your professional armor and lead fearlessly