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Authenticity -really does make a a difference

UPDATE and REVISED 17 Jul 2018: I find it helps in my personal life to reflect on this piece from time to time, and I have found myself working on it in my relationships to an extent too. Writing this article has had an influence on my life outside of coaching as well as allowing me to reflect within coaching. I wonder how this impacts on other coaches personal lives too? I was interested to take up this invitation by the good coach, and have a go at a personal blog type short piece that was meaningful to me, as well as being of practical value for others interested in helping people. ‘Authenticity’ as a really important aspect to my Practice. One very important lens I use to understand, and practice coaching is through the idea of ‘Authenticity’. Part of presenting the subject of Psychology to people has to begin with some ‘authentic’ use of definition. Building on some really useful work from others in a similar vein – when they were searching for their ‘authenticity’, I start with Kierkegaard who describes authenticity as a ‘way of being’. The flip side of this, of course, is being ‘inauthentic’. Heidegger believed/said that in reality we live in constant tension between being authentic and inauthentic. Seeing it as a continuum thus shapes my thinking and my introspection of my ‘self’. It is where I am at one with myself? at any given time with any given ‘hat’ on.

Authenticity starts with me, then! So this is about me. It is about my take on the authenticity of me. It is about relating to others in order to help others – my personal sharing, and especially to help us all share, that I hope will contribute towards what we understand about what each one of us does that works. What does authenticity mean for me and my ‘self’ in relation to the world around me? I guess my thoughts are towards a somewhat existential perspective. I live according to my values and lead what I define as a purposeful life. I immediately think of Cooley´s concept of the ‘looking glass self ’ which states that a person’s self grows out of their social interactions with others. That view of ourselves comes from the contemplation of personal qualities and impressions of how others perceive us. My perception of myself then leads on to how I believe I have values relating to concern for others, including also a sense of ethics, and integrity. All very laudable I hear you say, but how does that translate?

A summary of how my journey has worked for me I left school at eighteen and only knew that I wanted to work in education, with people, specifically in Psychology, with some element of research. This led me to a few years in a library which I thoroughly enjoyed. To quote a colleague ‘people are my kind of library.’ I then embarked on a part time Psychology degree with the Open University. Here I really started to find my authentic self, intellectually and personally, with many questions being answered for me. I went into teaching after further academic study completing a PGCE, where I found out more about myself as I lived on campus for the year as a ‘proper’ student. I also learnt that as a teacher (professional identity/’hat’) it is important to be yourself in the classroom and not adopt a false ‘teacher’ persona. I worked on this from day one. I then ventured into a study programme/MSc in Organisational Psychology, thinking of expanding my Further Education job and my Psychology offering. Following this experience, my work involved more direct contact with people and more overt learning. I worked with my alma mater the Open University in a variety of roles, including a project working with young people in Widening Participation, running events. I looked at identity – ‘who am I’ – loosely exploring one’s authentic self. Within the Widening Participation project I found myself drawn towards bridging the generation gap, specifically in order to know where these students, whose average age was seventeen, were coming from. I felt in our meetings that we were equal. This has become a major area of my continued practice now. The question is how? That word ‘career!' To be authentic I need to do things that are meaningful and resonate with other people. I need to find a key to their door to look at what skills and interests they can use, above all in a practical way. This is still very widely addressed through the ‘door’ of the term ‘Career’. This means finding a common language with them, whoever they may be. I have always had an affinity (I think!) with young people within my career in teaching and lecturing. I have been using a career assessment tool with clients of all ages, but mostly young people, for 10 years in career coaching across schools. I am very used to unpacking psych’ speak! I have also been told I am somewhat ageless! For example, I had a conversation with a client only yesterday who was ‘half my age’ and had been in teaching for a year. They were looking to ‘get out’ but they were concerned they might be ‘too old’ for a new career. Taking time to look at one’s inner strengths, skills and ability as well as, most importantly, personality (which may often be sidelined in careers discussions) is imperative and, on reflection, is what I did.

Key elements of authenticity - Overt/Covert disclosure? Is there a hidden agenda? I would like to take this chance to explore further what really makes a difference as to how to get authenticity to really work: for me, anyway! The issue of how much one should disclose with a client is very important. I will really only disclose anything if I feel it will help move the client on. For example, with a recent client I shared that I also worked in teaching. Showing that I had ‘on the ground’ knowledge of their situation resonated with them. I try to present my ‘true self’ to create relationships based on trust. This encourages the client to do the same. By sharing information, where appropriate, I can demonstrate that I trust my client and that there is an implicit (as well as explicit) psychological safety. I try to help the client to unpack themselves and their wants and needs in terms of the workplace and how they fit within it. I always try to put them at their ease and find out about them as people (without being intrusive) before we go through the results of their profiling diagnostics. I have clear goals that I want them to get to. My service is giving them what they want and contracting (don’t understand this word within this context) with boundaries. Importantly, I want to share my affinity with others; it has been said that I have an almost ‘throw away’ style of ‘how are you doing?’ when I first meet clients which enables clients to relax into the interview. Self regulation Self-regulation is an integral element to my practice. It has always fascinated me in both a physical and psychological way. A simple model is always to start with ‘physical self-regulation’. I have remained about the same size and shape all my adult life and am no paragon of virtue when it comes to eating, drinking and exercising. I have a genetic make-up that helps; but I really do everything in moderation generally and seem to have a body that knows when it has had enough. Extending this into my practice, I help others to see how they can help to regulate themselves and how they can make choices about their behaviours and choose the goals that work for them in order to be authentic with themselves. This is important, as Harter argues, as people who report being true to themselves (i.e. regulate themselves) usually experience higher self- esteem, more positivity and more hope for the future. This suggests more resilience through bad times and better psychological well-being; and higher self-esteem and life satisfaction. Self-efficacy is also really important making people feel as good as they can be realistically.

Challenges and congruence The biggest challenge I face is when I do not feel congruent with a piece of work that I am asked to do. I was recently asked to work in an educational environment in which I did not feel socially comfortable. There was incongruence between my values and that of the establishment, and some long-running beliefs underlying this (yes, I will own it!) prejudice. I try to think that it will be an experience: as I say to my clients when they are thinking about work experience, “All experience is good experience even if it turns out to be bad experience.” How does this work in the real world? A few tips I’ve shared my approach, let me translate how I make it work:

  1. I always arrive in an open way either face to face or via Skype, asking people about themselves in a non-intrusive way and seeking background information including non- verbal communication which might help me. Often it’s what they don’t say as much as what they do!

  2. I try to raise the energy level to raise the client’s awareness of themselves by smiling a lot and creating an environment where they feel I have a genuine interest in them as a person overall.

  3. I sometimes communicate vulnerability (where appropriate) overtly or covertly sharing an experience or just saying ‘sometimes I feel like that too.’

  4. I try to imagine where they are, what their surroundings might be the physical situation.

  5. I keep focused on the structure so we don’t just have a very congruent chat but a grounded discussion on the facts of the report.

  6. Always establish a common language and frame of reference with the client from the start and ensure that I am being as in their ‘world’ as possible.

Epilogue! A lot of my work relies on the perceived ‘efficacy’ of Psychology, and its research background, which provides useful tools that enable people to make sense of their learning and experience. But, of course it is the way the tools are used that really makes an important difference, which is why I also have this interest in how this whole idea of Coaching is growing. It is great to have had this chance to reflect and report on my own journey and practice. And now… A couple of questions for you to consider:

  • Do you ever consider this idea of authenticity?

  • How do you make sense of it for yourself?

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