Women and Leadership: Communication Skills and Authenticity in High-Stakes Situations

Why communication skills and authenticity in High-Stakes Situations is important in women and leadership?

Last year I delivered a group coaching program for a remote team distributed across India and Colombia. After four sessions, they had shown tremendous improvement, but when it came to their delivery, they were still struggling. Their presentations felt like performances—not conversations, and they felt overly formal. They were still wearing masks.

In our last session we focused on authenticity, and I decided to use some of the sage wisdom I had gleaned from my interview with theater maven Deborah Fink months before.

“A facade doesn’t serve us,” says Fink, leadership coach to executives and founding member of Theater Works in Berkeley. “I think we spend a lot of time trying to be something that isn’t actually authentic, whether it’s in business, or life, or in relationship. I think that a lot of energy is spent trying to be what we think we’re supposed to be instead of what the truth of authenticity is. And that’s what I am passionate about.”

“A lot of energy is spent trying to be what we think we’re supposed to be instead of what the truth of authenticity is.” —Deb Fink

Authenticity has become a buzzword, but research shows that bringing authenticity to the workplace leads to higher engagement, higher workplace satisfaction, and better performance. Yet for many, especially for women, authenticity can be a struggle.

Watch part of this interview with Deb here:

It’s been shown that, compared to men, women are judged disproportionately on our personality than on the quality of our work. We tend to get more criticism than men in the workplace for everything: from the way we speak to the way we dress or how our hair looks. Sure, showing up and responding to situations in an authentic way can feel vulnerable, but transformational leadership demands this. So how do you communicate from an authentic place, even when all eyes are on you?

Slow down

“Slowing down grounds us,” says Fink, “and the feminine has to be grounded.” In my work coaching women on communication skills, speaking too fast is by far the most common issue I see. They race through their content and their message gets lost. They’re so busy “performing” that they forget to connect with themselves and with the audience. What comes out feels frantic, ungrounded, and unsure. It’s like they just want to get it over with—they don’t want to take up space. But when we slow down by taking a breath or drinking some water or just pausing to collect our thoughts, we can reconnect to self and speak what’s coming up for us in that moment—not what we think we’re supposed to say.

Cultivating a relationship with yourself as an individual is necessary if you want to be a skilled communicator. Why? Because you don’t have the energy to be a performer and respond to what’s actually happening in the room simultaneously.

woman thinking

Fink says, “With self it’s an ongoing meditation; it’s ongoing grounding, in your own ownership of presence. It’s not pushed. It’s not forced. We know those people who say, ‘I’m in charge, you’re gonna listen to me: pound pound pound’, even if it’s not literally in that sense. There are people that take up space that way, as opposed to people who enter a room, take focus, and embrace the energy that they’re walking into.”

Too often when we’re under pressure in a presentation or meeting—anytime we’re speaking in front of a group—we feel discomfort because we think we have to control everything. We think that’s the way to lead. But if we want to move from an authentic place, we have to learn to respond to what’s happening in the present moment.

“You have to find comfort in the discomfort,” says Fink. Similar to practicing good listening skills: you can’t be listening if you’re busy thinking of what to say. You have to stay present to what is being said so you can give an authentic response, not your canned agenda.

Stay curious

“We’re not giving you a promotion because you don’t smile enough.” While this comment may seem preposterous, it was given to a woman friend in a performance review recently. How can you respond in an authentic way when authenticity feels like a fight? Stay curious, says Fink. “I think a lot of A types get wrapped up in the perfectionism of what the ‘supposed tos’ are, and lose authenticity.”
When we can stay curious in the present moment, we can avoid responding in a way that, even though authentic, we might regret later. Here’s an example of what to say to demonstrate curiosity in the real or metaphorical “You don’t smile enough” moment.

“Tell me more about that. Explain to me what you would like to see from me in particular, or from someone in that role. Perhaps I can work toward that for you. And if you don’t think I can, I’d like to know now.”

Staying curious buys you the time you need to distance yourself from the emotion of receiving the comment. It also gets you more information so that you can avoid spinning stories about what the comment really means.

communication skills

By staying curious Fink says, “You’re not being defensive. You’re not a deer in the headlights, you’re engaging in conversation, which they’re testing you to do, which they don’t think you can do, which is why they’re saying: ‘We think you should smile more.’

That’s a generalization. That doesn’t make sense. All you have to say is, ‘Oh, in what circumstances? Do you mean in general interacting with the client? Because I can get in discussion with you about that.’ There’s so much game playing when we are being inauthentic.”

Drop the mask

Leadership and authenticity go hand in hand. When we can drop the mask and show up from a real, genuine, and reliable place every time, we not only lead ourselves better, but we lead others better too.
After completing our three month group coaching program, I asked each participant in the India/Colombia cohort to film a reflection video to share what they took away from the experience. Compared to the first videos they made for the program, the difference was night and day. They were much more relaxed and authentic when they spoke on camera. They even seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Was it because they were comfortable with me after three months—or was it because they had finally been given permission to show up just as they are and respond to the moment with presence. They were communicating with more confidence because they had finally landed in their own skin. They were no longer saying what they thought they were supposed to say as leaders. They were leading because they were communicating with authenticity.

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We started the Rise & Shine Circle interview series because we believe that when we listen to the stories of women who have gone before, we begin to see we are not alone in our struggle. If you’re curious if this is the right place for you, learn more and sign up for free.

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If you struggle with communicating for impact, or just want to master this skill set so you can be more visible as a leader, check out my live online workshops.