I grew up learning English as a second language. My traditional Chinese upbringing created an environment where I was not to speak up, share my perspective, or disagree with a decision in public or in private. Because of a lack of confidence and cultural norms, I was never the first to speak in a classroom or social setting. I developed a reputation as a shy, insecure person who didn’t have an opinion. It became easy to stay in the background. While I was not expected to chime in or have a strong opinion about any topic, I would find myself in situations where my heart was aching to speak up. I could feel the knots form in my stomach when a decision was made that I didn’t think was right, especially when it was a decision about my future.
In my junior year of undergrad, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Hong Kong. It was an incredible experience. I was surrounded by people who looked just like me and grew up with similar cultural values and norms (although to all my Hong Kong friends, I was the American). I felt like I was home, really home. I learned and experienced so much that I decided that I wanted to move to Hong Kong after I graduated college. The problem was that I never had a REAL conversation with my parents about my dreams. I applied to jobs in Hong Kong and got interviews, but when it came time to fly out, my conversation with my parents was 30 seconds long and went like this:
“I want to move to Hong Kong and work there.”
And that was that. There was no deeper discussion, no opportunity to share why I wanted to go and learn why they didn’t want me to. My dream was deflated. I started a career in my hometown, San Francisco, and never looked back. Do I daydream about a different life, and what would have happened if I had the courage to have an authentic, meaningful conversation with my parents? Absolutely!
As I look back to that one failed conversation over 20 years ago, I wonder what other major conversations in my life were missing because I lacked the skill, courage or confidence to invite them. What about you? Can you remember a time when you did not share your real thoughts and feelings? What difference would it have made if you did?
How often do you find yourself hiding what you really think and feel, just to be polite and not upset the other person? In your work life, are you part of a culture of niceness that supersedes the need to be authentic? How has that impacted your experience of work? How has it impacted others’ experience of you? How might your life be different if you started showing up radically transparent TODAY? While we know not having the real conversation can cost us, sharing our truths also has its risks.
Snyder (1987)1 found that the more successful a person is at portraying inauthentic experiences or expressions, the more interpersonally competent he or she is judged to be. If we’re showing up sharing every thought and feeling candidly without a filter, we can rapidly derail our careers. In fact, Harter, Marod, Whitesell, & Cobbs (1996)2 argued that the ability to express thoughts and feelings that are contrary to one’s mental states is an important developmental adaptation. Think about it, when you are a new leader, trying to build relationships and a reputation, it makes sense that you would have the desire to cast yourself in the most positive light and take actions and make decisions that do not ‘rock the boat.’ In my experience, even when I know my direct supervisor is disappointed, their ability to be encouraging rather than assigning blame kept us moving forward. That was critical to our team’s morale.
On the flip side, we know that when we are inauthentic, it poses a challenge to our own sense of self. It has a significant psychological cost. In a study completed in 2013, Gino, Kouchaki, and Galinsky 3 found that experiencing inauthenticity led participants to feel more immoral and impure, directly impacting their sense of worth. These are the costs of missed conversations, where we choose to hide what we really think and feel. As I shared earlier, my entire life trajectory was impacted by a conversation I wasn’t willing to have. There is an art in finding the right amount of authenticity in each situation. How much we say, how we say it and what we choose not to say impacts our results. As you strive to become more authentic, here are some questions to consider that could make all the difference. Grab a trusted friend to ask you these questions or coach yourself through them.
How You Can Start Becoming More Authentic
- Check your context filter: What stories am I telling myself? Being authentic can be scary. What might others think if I truly voice my thoughts, opinions, and feelings? What if my truth can sound hurtful? What if they don’t like what they hear? When these thoughts show up, pause, and check your context.
- What stories am I telling myself about the situation?
- Do I have some biases showing up?
- Is this true?
- What information am I missing?
- What evidence have I gathered so far?
- Check your intentions: Why am I afraid to step into this conversation? When you find emotions cropping up about a conversation you’re about to have, ask yourself:
- What am I feeling (fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, etc.)?
- What’s causing me to feel this way?
- What factors have led up to this point? How long has it been going on?
- Where have I avoided the opportunity to step into this conversation before?
- What was the impact?
- Check your track record: How often have you talked yourself out of having a difficult conversation? When you recognize yourself about to do it again, ask yourself these questions:
- What do I stand to lose if I don’t have this conversation? Is this true? What else is at stake?
- What if I have the conversation, and it goes well? What results might I enjoy? What do I stand to gain?
- What’s at risk if I do engage in the conversation? Are these results worth it? Are these potential results real, or are they the story that I’m telling myself? This is where you truly need to look within yourself to decide whether engaging in the current situation is worth the costs you’ve just listed. This is about thoughtfully considering the possible outcomes when you choose to engage in or avoid a conversation.
So my question to you is: How are you currently showing up when you’re surrounded by your peers, colleagues or family members? What about when conflict arises? Are you someone who tackles that challenge in the moment, authentically, or someone who runs in the other direction, avoiding the conversation?
When I think about the times I have withheld my thoughts and opinions, I find myself playing and replaying the conversation in my head, wishing I spoke up. How might my life trajectory be different if I said what I really thought? What might my career choices, my family life, my social circle look like if I wasn’t afraid to say and do the things my heart wanted to do and say?
I came across Founder and Author of Fierce Conversations Susan Scott’s keynote at a training conference. When she spoke about the costs of missing conversations, I realized how much of my life might have been different if I had engaged in the conversations I was so afraid of. My hope for you is that you stop avoiding conversations, and master the courage to come out from behind yourself, into the conversation and make it real. How might things be different for you in 2022 when you start showing up this way?
To help you on your conversation journey, Fierce is ready to partner with you to start customizing your 2022 training.