Why authentic communication is like learning to downhill ski

Part of the Effective Communication series from Pinch Yourself Communication

Does the thought of standing on stage telling confessional stories that bare all about yourself seem as scary as hurtling out of control down a mountain on skis?

No problem. Because that’s not really the point of authentic communication.

However, if you are apprehensive about sharing personal stories, this article looks at why treating it like learning to ski may help you get over your initial hesitation.

The concept of authentic communication has gained popularity as an antidote in a world where people have lost trust in major institutions and leaders, and are uncertain about the credibility of information they receive.

Global trust research shows that people are more likely to believe information if it comes from ‘a person like yourself.’

Against that backdrop, authentic communication encourages us to be genuine, factual, consistent and open to showing other people our values and other aspects of our true selves, which can include showing vulnerability.

What can get in the way of this is a natural human instinct to portray our best selves within the workplace. Who doesn’t want to be regarded as educated, informed, capable, qualified, effective, efficient or faultless? Leaders feel comfortable depicting themselves at the top of the mountain, happy for people to believe they found it easy to get there.

Unfortunately, this can be counterproductive to our efforts to connect with people and have them engage with our ideas. Most human beings have experienced mistakes and vulnerabilities at one time or another, so the risk in projecting an image of perfection is that it can get in the way of being real or genuine, and it can seem unapproachable and even intimidating.

However, when you speak like a real human being and share real-life stories about who you are, what you’ve experienced and what you believe in, it helps create an emotional connection with other people.

Stories such as ‘triumph over adversity’ and ‘rags to riches’ are among the most common story archetypes for a reason. Such stories are engaging and inspiring.

So how can you confidently speak about your challenges, mistakes or uncertainties, which can be such fearful territory? How can you get over the feeling that showing vulnerability will be seen as weakness or inadequacy?

It’s encouraging to know that there are plenty of accomplished leaders in their fields who speak openly about their mistakes and failures on their way to success, but to follow their example will still take a leap of faith. 

That’s where it may be helpful to think of it like learning to downhill ski

People who are first learning to ski have a tendency to lean backwards toward what feels like the safety of the mountain.

But in leaning back, you actually put yourself at greater risk. This brings the weight off the front of your ski, which reduces your steering and control.

It feels counterintuitive, but leaning to the front of the ski and putting your weight down the mountain will make you a better, stronger skier. This in turn leads to greater confidence and ongoing success.

Likewise when it comes to sharing aspects of your real, authentic self or showing vulnerability as a leader. It may feel like you’re exposing yourself to greater risk yet it can actually be a source of strength, so don’t be afraid to lean down from the mountain.

To stretch the metaphor a bit further, it is not about throwing yourself down the mountain and oversharing with abandon.

There are public and private aspects of your life and as always, it’s important to exercise judgement about what’s going to be appropriate in a work context.

However, there are many aspects of ourselves we can get comfortable to share more and experiences from our lives outside work which can be inspiring, relevant and relatable. This is particularly true when we focus on the perspectives gained and lessons learned. That’s a real position of strength.

For example:
Anecdotes about challenges you’ve overcome in your own career can be inspiring and motivating for others.
Difficult episodes that happen to you in your day-to-day life can serve as metaphors for overcoming roadblocks with work priorities such as the customer experience or teamwork.
Stories about things people have said or done to you which challenged your perspective may be useful to illustrate new ways of thinking about a business problem.

Authenticity has become a popular concept for good reason – it aims to bring some humanity and trust back to leadership.

On a cautionary note however: authenticity has become such a buzzword in recent times, it seems at risk of losing some of its own authenticity.

If it comes to be seen simply as a persona to be presented or an attitude to portray, we have missed the point of what authenticity really means and how it can help us to meaningfully connect with other people.

What are your experiences with authenticity? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below



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Mairi Barton is a strategic communication and public affairs leader who has influenced and delivered outcomes at the highest levels of the Australian corporate, government and non-profit sectors. Mairi is the founder and Chief Executive of strategic communication agency Pinch Yourself Communication. She is an award-winning former journalist who served in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in Canberra. Mairi enjoys photography and posts to her Instagram gallery: @pinchmyself