Sunday, August 10, 2008

Powertool: The Authentic vs. The Mask

The authentic is a line from one thing
along to the next; it interests us.
Strangely, it relates to what works,
but is not quite the same. It never
swerves for revenge,

Or profit, or fame: it holds
together something more than the world,
this line. And we are your wavery
efforts at following it. Are you coming?
Good: now it is time.

--- William Stafford,
( from the poem “An Introduction to Some Poems”)

As with most coaching powertools, upon first consideration, the terms in question appear to have a relationship of opposites. Truth vs. Fraud, Action vs. Delay, Respect vs. Invalidation, Trust vs. Doubt, all imply and carry a tension of opposing meaning and understanding of the action that the words carry with them. One might easily arrive at the conclusion that there is an inherent good/bad, positive/negative, implied in these pairings. It would be good to dispel this assumption from the very beginning in this discussion of how The Authentic and The Mask work as a kind of actionable “team” in coaching practice.

Perhaps the model of a yin-yang can be most useful in discussing the relationship between what is the authentic and what is the mask. No self-respecting Taoist would ever go so far as to imply that the darker side of the yin-yang symbol is bad. There is a movement and a relationship between the light and dark side of the symbol that clearly connotes the way these two forces are contained within one another and move each other.

We can say the same thing about the nature of the relationship of how, in coaching, the Authentic and the Mask work with one another to create an interplay and a way forward.

The Mask, as it is used in this power tool, becomes metaphor for what is hidden from plain sight, what is disguised; what, at first, may look to be in-authentic. As a verb the word ‘mask’ describes the action of masking. As a noun it becomes the mask itself, the thing that is used to disguise or hide. For this discussion it may be worth it to add, as well, that masks are used to decorate, to accentuate and to protect. Masks are used to entice and tease in a playful “game” manner. They are used to celebrate. The streets of Venice and even New Orleans are filled with masked revelers during Mardi Gras.

While the uncovering of what is hidden, the removing of masks, is largely what we, as coaches, might be occupied with in order to help our clients arrive at authentic progress and action that is, as described in definition 5 (see below), “true to one's own personality, spirit, or character”, it is just as crucial to understand the protective manner of masks. Masks are worn in toxic environments as a matter of sheer survival.

It is worthwhile to note that, while working with clients, our own coaching mask, based in true and authentic communication and a desire to assist others with their own travels toward self-realization and progress, can be useful in helping a client determine when, if and how he or she can lower their own masks. Sometimes, as clearly as a solution or way forward seems to us, it, by the very nature of its masked presence in the coaching conversation, remains masked to our client. There is a reason for this. We must respect that reason. We must be the catalyst for helping our clients decide for themselves when the “de-masking” can or should occur. We must at times mask our own knowledge and insight to help our clients find their own truths, their own way to their authentic selves.

We can help by helping them create a safe environment around themselves in their lives and in the somewhat rarified environment of our coaching relationship, but safety is key. Protective masks are there for a reason. We must respect their power and rationale.

Readiness to “de-mask” is a key element in our clients’ progress; as is conscious adoption of masks for protection and/or non-manipulative, authentic, positive, attention-creating action and strategies for healthy self-promotion.

For celebration too. Remember, in those Mardi Gras celebrations, particularly in Venice, the mask facilitates an ability to behave in new ways and try seeing new versions of oneself. With a mask one can often step out of old formulas and patterns of behavior into new perspectives. And, in that way, a good powerful question to a client seeking new, more authentic, self-expression or attainment might be “What would the mask look like that you would wear to help you try new approaches/perspectives”? -- or – “What kind of mask do you need to wear to feel the kind of courage you need to do that?”

Our skill as coaches depends on the tools and skills we use to assist our clients in their ability and facility to reveal themselves to themselves so that they can move forward in their stated goals and objectives. Our powerful questions, reflective listening, our challenges; the very reasons we are enlisted as partners for self-actualized self-awareness and actionable life improvements, are powerful! If allowed to, our compassionate and direct communication tools and coaching strategies will offer challenge enough for our clients who wish to step forward into a better way of seeing themselves and their lives, we needn’t take out the option of direct confrontation often… which can amount to a forced “de-masking”.. a rather violent act that, before readiness, can jeopardize the coaching relationship or even open up old deep wounds that we, as coaches, are not equipped to manage in a coaching framework.

I have always loved the William Stafford poem from which the epigraph at the beginning of this discussion is taken. Once I started seeing myself as a coach and started working with the ideas, tools and practices of coaching it came back to me. As I was visioning what my powertool might look like, and I settled on the word “authentic” as a core component (perhaps the core component), the poem came back to me strongly again.

I find the dictionary definition of authentic interesting in a number of surprising ways. That it has a now obsolete meaning of authoritative makes sense to me in that there remains a certain sense of authority in what is called authentic. Real, genuine, factual, reliable, true, worthy of acceptance, tested, are all words that are used in conjunction with the word authentic. Etymologically the word also carries a deep resonance of the authority of the act of genuine-ness and truth, or one who masters truth, from the Greek words for ‘master’ and ‘accomplishment’.

In order to accomplish truth, to master it and to be a master of it, we, as coaches, must appeal to our own inner authenticity with compassion and the honing of our abilities to connect to others in an accomplished, non-judgmental and empathic manner. This may require the use of masks, recognizing the masks our clients have in use, understanding in an authentic way how they are integrated in our clients’ self, in their dreams and their disappointments. We must, as well, understand and recognize how our own masks impact our ability to coach others inside, outside and beyond their own masks.

We don’t see it often now, but the masks once used in many masked balls were held to the face using a stick of one kind or another. Wearing the mask or lowering it was left to the choice of the wearer. The masks became a tool to enhance the playfulness of the event, to make the event more authentically celebratory. In this way, in the work of our lives and our clients’ self-actualized attempts to make their lives more successful, happier, more connected, and more authentic, the raising and lowering of our masks becomes a great tool, a safety net and a way to enhance our creative play: a way to guard and protect our tendernesses, a way to accentuate the real face we present to the world and a way to promote and present our inner faces, skills, gifts and dreams.


1. Can you describe three masks you routinely wear in public settings (work, school, social events)? Do they have positive functions? Negative functions?

2) Can you think of a situation in which a client’s mask was very apparent to you but not apparent to the client? Was it an impediment to their progress? What did you do?

3) Can you remember a time when you have forcefully confronted a person about a masked pattern of behavior that you thought was damaging their life? Did your confrontation have the desired outcome? If it did can you describe that effect? If not, can you describe how you would have dealt with the situation differently?

4) Find someone you trust and like and reveal your feelings for that person in a very authentic direct manner. Now find another person whom you care for and reveal your feelings for that person in a more playful, indirect, masked manner. Compare and contrast the two ways and the responses you received. Which did you like better? What are the pros and cons of each approach.



\ə-ˈthen-tik, ȯ-\
Middle English autentik, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos, from authentēs perpetrator, master, from aut- + -hentēs (akin to Greek anyein to accomplish, Sanskrit sanoti he gains)
14th century
1 obsolete : authoritative
2 a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features c: made or done the same way as an original
3: not false or imitation : real, actual
4 a of a church mode : ranging upward from the keynote bof a cadence : progressing from the dominant chord to the tonic
5: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character



A covering worn on the face to conceal one's identity, as:
A covering, as of cloth, that has openings for the eyes, entirely or partly conceals the face, and is worn especially at a masquerade ball.
A grotesque or comical representation of a face, worn especially to frighten or amuse, as at Halloween.
A facial covering worn for ritual.
A figure of a head worn by actors in Greek and Roman drama to identify a character or trait and to amplify the voice.

A protective covering for the face or head.
A gas mask.
A usually rubber frame forming a watertight seal around the eyes and nose and containing a transparent covering for use in seeing underwater.
A covering for the nose and mouth that is used for inhaling oxygen or an anesthetic.
A covering worn over the nose and mouth, as by a surgeon or dentist, to prevent infection.

A mold of a person's face, often made after death.
An often grotesque representation of a head and face, used for ornamentation.
The face or facial markings of certain animals, such as foxes or dogs.
A face having a blank, fixed, or enigmatic expression.
Something, often a trait, that disguises or conceals: "If ever I saw misery under a mask, it was on her face" (Erskine Childers).
A natural or artificial feature of terrain that conceals and protects military forces or installations.

An opaque border or pattern placed between a source of light and a photosensitive surface to prevent exposure of specified portions of the surface.
The translucent border framing a television picture tube and screen.
Computer Science A pattern of characters, bits, or bytes used to control the elimination or retention of another pattern of characters, bits, or bytes.
A cosmetic preparation that is applied to the face and allowed to dry before being removed, used especially for cleansing and tightening the skin.
Variant of masque.
A person wearing a mask.

VERB: masked , masking , masks VERB: tr.
To cover with a decorative or protective mask.
To make indistinct or blurred to the senses: spices that mask the strong flavor of the meat.
To cover in order to conceal, protect, or disguise. See Synonyms at disguise.
To block the view of: Undergrowth masked the entrance to the cave.
To cover (a part of a photographic film) by the application of an opaque border.
Chemistry To prevent (an atom or a group of atoms) from taking part in a normal reaction.
VERB: intr.
To put on a mask, especially for a masquerade ball.
To conceal one's real personality, character, or intentions.
ETYMOLOGY: French masque, from Italian maschera, from Medieval Latin masca, specter, witch, mask