This Year, Give the Gift of Authenticity

December 16, 2010


The word “authenticity” has come my way twice in recent days, so I thought I’d better pay attention. The first time was in the midst of a dialogue last week, when one of the participants thanked another for their authenticity after a successfully navigated, challenging exchange.

The next time the word cropped up was yesterday when I was watching a video clip of the author Richard Louv discussing the sad state of much urban architecture in the US. He bemoaned the mass-produced, homogenized feel of many American cities; the sense that you could be in Anywhere, USA with no clue from the architecture about the unique qualities of the area. As a result, according to Louv, “…we hunger for true authenticity.”

So how do these two seemingly unrelated mentions of “authenticity” come together? In architecture, “authentic” designs, as Louv describes them, are modified by and reflect the unique character of a locale. In relationship, the first definition we reach for is “speaking our truth”: taking the risk of rejection by revealing some important aspect of ourselves. This is vital, but there is more. We can express our truths and still leave an encounter bereft of authenticity if we are not willing to, in some way, be moved or influenced by the truth of another.

I was fortunate to grow up in a city with many homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and have admired architects, like Wright, who create buildings that reflect local character. Architects whose ideas—strong as they may be—are modified by dialogue with a place and the people in it. The structures they create are human; they draw people in. They evoke curiosity and feeling. They endure in the imagination.

In a similar way, our relationships become more solid and enduring when they are characterized by a receptivity that breeds authenticity. What often moves me most as I observe dialogic encounters is the willingness of people to listen to things that are hard for them to hear and to be changed in some way by the hearing. In so doing they leave the speaker with the feeling of having had an authentic exchange, not just another trading of perspectives.

This holiday season, many of us will be challenged to listen to people and things that are tough to hear. Dialogue participants have much to teach us: when hearing a hard thing and tempted to respond in kind, take a breath. Get curious. Ask a question that invites the other to explore the background and meanings of their perspective. Just listen. If we genuinely listen—and if we open ourselves to the possibility of being touched and influenced in some way—we will be giving a gift of authentic relationship.