When I work on high-stakes communications, with professional speakers, or top-level executives, I coach them to do the hard work of taking ownership of their personas and their stories.  In short, I work with them to become intentional communicators. 

One of the first questions they ask in most cases is, how do I become intentional and not lose my authenticity?  In other words, if I start to show up with a certain demeanor, won’t that be fake in some sense?  Sometimes, the question gets asked this way:  “If I rehearse too much, I’ll become stiff and not-in-the-moment.  I shouldn’t rehearse too much, right?”

These are aspects of the same central concern.  Somehow, working to control one’s behavior means you risk becoming artificial.  It’s an interesting thought, because it’s akin to, say, choosing what you’re going to wear, or deciding what you’re going to say before you say it.  And yet people rarely worry about those actions being inauthentic.

And yet, of course, on the flip side, we revere people who are cool in a crisis, or who pull off a high-stakes meeting without showing their nerves, or who stay confident throughout a difficult period in their lives.  We never say to the entrepreneur, “How fake of you to persevere and stay confident in front of your suppliers even though you knew you were struggling to make payroll.”

Instead, we say, “How courageous of you to hang in there.”

So we do reward strong intent when the stakes are high.  We just don’t quite know what to make of it in everyday situations.  And we don’t like to feel that we’re being played, any time.

But to decide how you want to show up, to select in advance from a number of possibilities for intention, is not playing your audience or your fellow meeting participants.  It’s simply to choose to put your best self forward.  To be present with the most useful set of emotions and attitudes under the circumstances.

The alternative, to take pot luck, is less respectful of the other people in the room, in many ways, and less mindful about the occasion.  So many of us carry our mobile phones around with us, for example, stealing quick peeks at them when there’s a quiet moment, or we think no one is watching, or – the hell with it – it’s been seventy-five seconds and I can’t stand it any longer.

That reveals a lack of intention, and a lack of presence, and a lack of focus on the moment in front of you.

Each of us fills many roles each day – we’re a worker, a colleague, a boss, a negotiator, a parent, a child, a sister, a brother, a spouse, an audience member – the list goes on and on.  We show up in different ways for each, from eye-rolling reluctance to wild enthusiasm – and yet we don’t accuse ourselves of being any less genuine or authentic when we feign enthusiasm for a child’s school play, for example.  The reason is that underneath our intent is loving, and that carries the day.

Choose your persona, choose your story, choose how you intend to show up.  Otherwise you leave your intent to chance, and that will most likely be distracted and only half-present.  And then you’re not really showing up at all.

2 Comments

  1. We miss an opportunity when we decide in advance that a situation is low stakes, like the way we greet each other in the mornings — at home or at work. If we strive for “not boring” and especially elegant in so-called ordinary conversations, we won’t have to don a Superman cape when the stakes are higher. Every exchange can be practice for a bigger life.

    I actually rehearse my side of difficult conversations before I go into them. Does that guarantee a smooth outcome? Hardly! But I smile when I think of how much worse it would’ve been had I not prepared.

    Thanks for the reassurance I’m spending my time wisely, Nick. At least in this case!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Maureen — and a great point. What’s that saying? There are no small parts; just small actors?

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