Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Search for the Authentic Voice

“Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun.
It is not my own face I see there, but other faces,
even your face at another age.
Whatever’s lost there is needed by both of us—”

-- Adrienne Rich

In the arts the idea of voice and “style” as highly individuated and highly sought after aspects of the creative process, and the product of that process, is paramount. One is expected to seek out and grow into one’s “voice” through a variety of approaches that are numerous and almost as difficult to pin point as the nature and attributes of that voice itself. The emergence of that voice or style as a recognizable attribute of one’s creative work is the evidence of what is real and accessible as it becomes an artistic experience that moves and transforms. It is in the making of one’s voice accessible to others that one’s voice can be transformed into art, a poem, a style of acting and singing or writing. Even this is a difficult and hard-to-pin-down process of self discovery within rules and directions that are almost completely reliant on the artists’ vision and honesty about how that vision is rendered.

In the helping professions, in work that is defined by verbal communication as its major tool, finding the authentic voice involves a similar process. We learn a variety of approaches and theories with which we hope to use to approach certain tasks of eliciting and/or imparting information to our “audience”, our clients and patients. Often the information we deal in, the stuff of our interactions, is of an essential, highly intimate and at best only partially discovered nature. We are given the authority and the responsibility of creating spaces for change and development in partnership with those who come to us for help through how we listen and how we speak about what we hear.

Just as the search for and maintenance of the authentic voice or style of an artist involves constant self-evaluation and observation of a full spectrum of aspects of the creative process, the ability of the helping professional to engage in listening and dialogue toward change and discovery is also charged with the responsibility of coming from some center of the authentic. Regardless of one’s proficiency in any number of communication and therapeutic techniques, the inability to engage genuinely with clients and patients will sabotage progress. The ability to authentically and somewhat fearlessly enter intimate relationship is the thing. Everything else can only become productive after the basis for real caring and trust has been established and can be maintained.

This may appear to be somewhat elementary. Trust-building and rapport are universally accepted, and perhaps taken for granted, as the foundation in most therapeutic and professional helping relationships. But while they are expected to exist, their nature and the skill of the caregiver to imbue them with the ability to tap into an authentic, deep and productive caring, without crossing over and sabotaging the process by crashing through professional and personal boundaries, remains less explored.

It is the nature of the authentic voice of trust and connection we are most interested in… the rather less-that-definable nature of communicating true concern and empathy from the heart of where it lives in oneself. I propose that this is the real work for any helping professional, and that without it active listening, support and guidance through change are at best a sluggish possibility if not impossible.

We’ve all been subjected to office and professional personnel, in any number of professional capacities in which we are the consumer, whose chosen manner of communicating concern and care is parental, patron- or matronizing, sometimes to such an extreme degree that we are automatically offended or alienated. In care scenarios in which our personal, emotional and often intimate physical well-being is being explored, our responses to this “style” might range from weary tolerance to open disdain. In any case, the lack of ability in which the helping professional has been able to convey an authentic concern, coupled with a solid area-specific skill set and aptitude, immediately affects our ability to enter into an honest exchange of information that lubricates and is essential to the dialogue that must take place in order that we get the best care and attention possible.

Missteps in communication by helping professionals are not often as apparent as this example. It is possible that many of the mistakes made are even more damaging but less immediately apparent. Tone of voice, pacing, ability to read the nature and preferences of the client’s own styles of communication in relationship to how they are best served through conversation are all important aspects of how to establish an authentic voice as a professional in a helping role. Measuring and assessing the various balances of need in these areas, while one is in the middle of establishing and taking care of a genuine trusting relationship, are among the most difficult and creative aspects of the process of building a productive therapeutic helping relationship. Skill and getting the information necessary to make good judgments in these areas are often a matter of practice and simply asking for the information one needs from the client or patient in question. But perhaps more essential, and most complicated, is the ability of the professional to access and use his or her real self, the authentic voice, both symbolically and literally.

Simple enough: as long as the professional is familiar with and knows what that true voice sounds like. If we consider that finding one’s authentic voice is much, much more than hearing the music and meaning of what comes out our mouths and what does not, and exists more along the lines of a deeper search and maintenance of a familiarity with oneself, at a very primary level, then we begin to recognize the true complexity of how to convey our connection to those who come to us for assistance in our role as helper.

And this isn’t about self-disclosure, or at least it is not about disclosing the facts and minutiae of our lives to those to whom we are entrusted to assist in any number of ways. While a certain amount of self-disclosure is probably in order depending on individual circumstances and professional roles, too much information disclosed about oneself could be a mistaken attempt to provide authentic connection that can and should be established in some other way. This can damage or short circuit your client or patient’s will to engage productively.

Remember, in many cases, your authenticity will encourage them to see you in the way that they need to in order that you can help them. Too much specific information prevents that from happening and does nothing to further the therapeutic alliance that is so essential. So much of how we establish firmly genuine professional interactional relations has so little to do with what we say and more about how and what we can elicit from our clients and patients out of their conviction that we are worthy of their trust. We can only be successful in this task if we are perceived to be coming from a place of truth and genuine non-judgmental concern for their well-being.

So how do we show our true selves to those who come to us for expertise, guidance and support? What is this process of discovery and maintenance of our authentic voice? Where do we start, and more, what will it look like as we are able to build a certain amount of skill? Are we somewhere along the path already? How do we open that pocket of genuine empathy and dole it out naturally and care-fully, all in the service of those who come to us for our expertise and support and as a catharsis toward their own change?

Here are some questions that might be helpful in that process of self discovery and “authenticity maintenance”. There are no right or wrong answers. These questions are provided as a tool for self evaluation and a way to explore and meditate on the location and creative disclosure of authentic voice.

1) Think of a professional, someone who helped you whom you hold in very high regard. Name five of their non verbal attributes that you were fond of or that helped you decide to trust them.
2) How comfortable are you with non-sexual intimacy in your own life? How does that translate to your professional life?
3) How do you speak about your clients and patients with other professionals in your field? How is it different from how you speak to your clients and patients? How do you rationalize any differences?
4) When talking about presenting your authentic self to your clients and patients what parts of your real self, which emotions and feelings, feel most vulnerable? How do you respond to clients and patients who express those same emotions and feelings?
5) In your life what has been the best response to you when you have been in great pain, grief or confusion?
6) In what situations have you felt you have been able to speak in a way that represented most who you are as a person and what is most important to you? What was the outcome? What created that opportunity?
7) When conversing with others what cues do you notice that say you have a person’s attention and concern? What cues say you have lost their attention and concern?
8) What kind of range of expression, from sadness to laughter, anger to joy, do you employ in your relationships with your clients and patients? What kind of a range do you think represents the authentic voice as we are speaking of it?
9) What practice do you employ to exercise and strengthen your ability to have and maintain authenticity-based relationships with your patients and clients? If you do not have one, where will you begin to look to find one? How will you know it is working?
10) Name five ways you can practice increasing your skills in accessing and maintaining your authentic voice.

Finding, developing and taking care of the authentic voice is a deep and creative process of unending discovery and uncovering, not unlike the one a painter or poet goes through to locate, translate and present central themes of their selves in the world. Our wish, as helping professionals, is to similarly make our selves accessible and in-common to others who have come to us for support and guidance and even a kind of love.

As the poet Adrienne Rich says in one of her Twenty One Love Poems, from her book “Dream of a Common Language”, our authenticity is the one way we have at our disposal to ask our clients and patients the same question they ask us, “…show me what I can do for you, who have made the unnameable nameable for others, even for me.”