Every day we have opportunities to practice authenticity, whether we notice them or not. They sometimes appear as intense moments of internal crisis, and other times they remain hidden, lurking in the shadows of our experience. On some occasions we throw ourselves head-first into confrontation, and on other occasions we count our losses and run away. Throughout our lives, we develop behavioral patterns for how the authentic self shows up or hides.
Think about your communication habits. Consider the degree to which your interactions are purposeful, compared to the degree to which you are on comfy auto-pilot. In times of trial, how does your voice show up at work or at home? Pause to think about the life situations that are most challenging for you to be genuine with others.
My team has been interviewing executives for an ongoing research study, exploring how the true self shows up within the context of a leadership role. We’ve found that executives express their authentic selves in varying ways; when it matters most, they tend to practice one of the following three approaches to sharing their authentic voice:
The Straight Shooter. “Say it all” people are great at getting to the heart of the matter. They cut to the chase, clear the air, and save others from the risk of putting difficult truths on the table. Straight Shooters provide quick, candid feedback, which (when skillfully carried out) can advance conflict resolution effectively and efficiently. What is the downside to this style? The Straight Shooter can make mistakes if they speak their minds carelessly – others may lose respect for them or no longer wish to listen to what they have to say. Straight Shooters can sometimes be offensive and hurtful to others. Those I’ve seen who practice this style most effectively lead with clear values and a pure intention to care for others along the way.
The Diplomat. People who say only some of what they mean, depending on the situation, are Diplomats. What are the benefits of this style? Diplomats may be tactful and trustworthy in situations where issues can become heated. We can count on them to keep their cool. But what are the costs of the Diplomat style? Others may find it difficult to understand them. Those who do not like to read between the lines may dismiss the Diplomat. Highly effective Diplomats seem to have mastered the art of expressing their dissenting opinion through emotionally neutral wording, purposeful silence, or gentle non-verbal behaviors, and they still manage to express their main point quickly while keeping the climate of the conversation positive.
The Mouse. Then there are people who withdraw and say little-to-nothing of what they mean. I have yet to meet a person who falls into this category all of the time, although I have met some people who consistently default to this style in certain situations. What are the positives of this approach? The Mouse can safely avoid conflict and can keep others happy at the time of the conversation. They also can buy precious time for revisiting an issue later, or slow down the exchange to allow a greater understanding between parties to develop. The negatives of this approach include becoming confusing to others, especially when the Mouse’s behavior doesn’t match their earlier communication. The Mouse also risks losing respect or not getting what they really want by letting others dominate. The effective Mouse selectively chooses its battles, and it actively decides when to not engage – which is different from dodging conflict out of anxiety or habit.
All three of the above approaches can be valuable when carried out in caring, open-minded, and intentional ways. Ideally, we should learn to embody each approach so we can have the most behavioral options available to us.
I’ve seen straight shooters function very effectively for coordinating logistics among teams and encouraging others to speak their minds so things move quickly among members. I’ve seen diplomats skillfully diffuse conflict in situations before problems escalate to personal attacks, and I’ve seen mouse types strategically postpone decisions to maintain a friendly climate when they know issues can be revisited at a later time. While there is no formula for when to best use each approach, it is critical that we strive to find the style that works best for us and our teams, given the situation at hand. The key is that we reflect on how we show up, so we can strive to connect our behavior with clear purpose and care for others.
Consider the above three patterns for expressing your authentic voice. In situations that matter most, what style will show up for you today? (And when?) Are you more often the Straight Shooter, the Diplomat, or the Mouse? If you are a Straight Shooter, think about practicing patience, listening with compassion, or inviting others to participate in your decision-making. Are you a Diplomat? Come up with phrases to help you more briefly and directly express your thoughts and opinions to others. If you are often a Mouse, reflect on what you value most and whether or not you will truly be satisfied with your current conflict-avoidant approach for the long run. What might the more courageous and stronger “you 10 years from now” do? I challenge you to identify specific, new behaviors you can experiment with today in pursuit of taking your professional and personal development to the next level.