We often are often advised to “be authentic,” but depending on what that can mean, it might not be the best advice. If I take it to mean that I should do whatever I want in any given situation because it is a reflection of my “authentic self” and people can take or leave it, then I will never grow or challenge myself to improve. On the other hand, if I strive for my actions to truly reflect my deeply held beliefs and values, I am always working toward a more authentic version of myself. So, what does “authentic” really mean?

 

Being an Authentic Person

To be authentic, something has to come from the real source. It cannot be a copy or a false representation. Authenticity in people has been discussed by philosophers like Kierkegaard – a Christian who proposed that one needs to “become what one is” to achieve authenticity, therefore he should be Christ-like – and Nietzsche – who, as an atheist, reinterpreted Kierkegaard’s definition of authenticity to be a disregard for all inherited or traditional values in favor of determining one’s own identity. All of these definitions refer to an ongoing iterative struggle to be the truest version of yourself. And to determine what that is, the first step is reflecting on yourself and identifying what your beliefs and values are so you can live by them.

 

Living According to Your Beliefs

If I believe that everyone’s voice is important but I don’t practice effective listening skills and do not validate the perspectives of others, then I am not being the truest version of myself because I am not living according to my beliefs. If I value honesty but I tell lies or manipulate the truth, I am not being authentic. Being an authentic person is a complex journey without a destination. Most people will make mistakes along the way, but it is a continuous process of striving to align your actions with your beliefs.

For example, Jim Knight’s Better Conversations explores ways to improve our interactions with others by first establishing a set of beliefs you want to live by, and then developing habits to that will help embody those beliefs. The Better Conversations Beliefs are:

  1. I see conversation partners as equals.
  2. I want to hear what others have to say.
  3. I believe people should have a lot of autonomy.
  4. I don’t judge others.
  5. Conversation should be back and forth.
  6. Conversation should be life-giving.

With our beliefs established, it is then possible to begin developing ways to embody them in actions and behaviors – in this case through the Better Conversations Habits explored throughout the book.

 

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Assessing Your Authenticity

How can we know if our actions truly reflect our beliefs? After identifying your deeply held beliefs and values, the next step is to observe your actions and behaviors and ask, “What are the assumptions that drive this behavior?” Using the form above, first identify several of your own core beliefs and values. Then record some of your specific actions or behaviors. Reflecting on each action, use the righthand column to determine any assumptions or beliefs that could be seen to drive the corresponding behaviors.

For example, I might identify “I see conversation partners as equals” as one of my beliefs. Then, I have a conversation with someone about a topic on which I have a lot of experience and expertise, so I explain it to them. This would be an action that was taken with no ill intent, but upon reflection, I may see that a driving assumption or belief of that action is “I know more than you, so I have more to offer in this conversation than you do.” This assumption conflicts with my own beliefs and values, making it an inauthentic behavior. Recognizing this gives me the opportunity to go into future conversations with the specific intention of authentically expressing my beliefs through my actions.

 

Inevitably, there will always be some example of our actions misaligning with our beliefs, and identifying these inconsistencies is all part of the journey. What is important is that we are always striving to improve. The danger lies in using the idea of authenticity to remain set in our ways. It is easier to define authenticity as a defense of our actions – to say, “If you don’t like what I’ve done, that’s your problem.” The more complex path – but ultimately more rewarding – is one of reflection on how aligned your actions truly are with your core beliefs and values. No one is perfect, so we may never fully embody all of our beliefs, but striving to get there is as authentic as we can be.

 

 

For more resources to accompany Better Conversations and the Beliefs and Habits, check out the links below.

Chapter 3: Listening With Empathy

Chapter 4: Fostering Dialogue

Chapter 5: Asking Better Questions

Chapter 6: Connecting

Chapter 7: Finding Common Ground

Chapter 8: Redirecting Toxic Words and Emotions

Chapter 9: Building Trust