Fall Colors: A Metaphor for Finding Authenticity
How to create space for real connection and engagement.
Fall is not my favorite season. I miss the longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures of summer. But the shorter, cooler days do produce something I absolutely love: gorgeous fall colors.
As you might remember from science class, trees use chlorophyll to produce food during the growing season. In the summer, when the tree works hard, green chlorophyll is so abundant that it masks other pigments in the leaves. Once the season changes, chlorophyll breaks down and voila! Yellow and orange leaves. The colors were always there, but they were overshadowed by the hard-working green stuff.
This applies to people, like you, too. You look and act differently depending on your circumstances and stage in life. When you’re focused on producing (summer), you look and act differently than when you’re headed into a period of rest (fall).
That’s normal! I wear different clothes and use different nonverbals when I’m presenting a workshop vs. coaching a client vs. meeting a friend for lunch vs. crawling into bed at night. I’m guessing you don’t wear your work clothes to bed either. (Except on Casual Friday?) It is appropriate and still authentic to change how you look based on what you’re doing. After all, chlorophyll is an “authentic” part of the tree.
The question is, do you ever get to let your overshadowed “colors” steal the show?
And what about the people around you? Do you provide opportunities for the people who work with you and for you to be multi-layered, or do they always have to show up in a certain prescribed manner?
There’s been a lot of buzz lately around employee engagement and “bringing your whole self to work.” And for good reason! Work is A HUGE part of most people’s lives. If you can’t be your true self in your job, your entire life feels awful. Feeling engaged and valid leads to safer, healthier, happier, more productive team members.
But it takes a little bit of space from the work to be able to see a person’s hidden colors. Remember how dominant chlorophyll can be? If you want to give people opportunities to express their full range, give S.P.A.C.E..
First, SEE and PAY ATTENTION. We love to put people in boxes. We love to categorize them, assume we have them all figured out, and then revert to autopilot for our interactions. The first step to giving others the space to be their whole, real selves, is to simply be observant. Stop “seeing” what you expect to see and start noticing what is actually before you. Open your eyes.
Years ago, my husband attended a “team building event” for his department at a brewery after work. He’d been working from home that day, so instead of his usual khakis and polo shirt, he showed up in jeans and a baseball cap. He walked up to his coworkers and for a second they stared blankly at him. Then one woman gasped and said, “I’ve never seen you in a baseball cap before! I didn’t even recognize you!”
There’s a LOT more to your coworkers and employees than what you see at work every day. Honoring that reality will help you start to notice little glimpses here and there.
Once you start seeing and paying attention, then ACKNOWLEDGE and CONFIRM. Validate what you’re seeing. You can do this verbally, through conversation. You can also do it nonverbally with listening skills, eye contact, or any kind of “nod” that says, “I see you.”
Notice that seeing isn’t enough. You have to communicate that you see. Do you know what’s it’s like to feel invisible? Like no one sees you or knows you or gets you? It’s a dark, lonely feeling. It’s only when someone demonstrates that they see you that you feel understood.
I was out for an early morning walk recently when my father-in-law was visiting. Later in the day, he said, “I went for a walk this morning, too, and saw you across the way down by the park.” I didn’t know he’d seen me until he told me. People don’t feel seen and heard and understood until you communicate it. Acknowledge and confirm.
Finally, EXPLORE options. How does a broader understanding of this person change things? What possibilities does it open up? How might it affect your own behavior?
Sometimes, what you uncover when you get to know someone is unpleasant. (Ugh!) There are some toxic people out there. But hey, that’s still good information! You can act accordingly. If you’re dealing with a toxic person, establish boundaries and keep a safe distance. Poison sumac leaves turn a beautiful red color in the fall, but you still don’t want to touch them!!
Most of the time, giving people S.P.A.C.E. to reveal their true colors yields a gorgeous array. What a rich experience work can be with all that beauty and variety!
Be sure to give yourself some S.P.A.C.E. sometimes, too. Do you actually see yourself? Do you pay attention to your patterns, preferences, and needs? Do you acknowledge and confirm them? Have you explored the bigger, greater, wider possibilities for your life? You are more complex and variegated than you probably let on, maybe even to yourself.
Of course, it’s okay to be steeped in “chlorophyll” at work. Sometimes, that’s the most appropriate approach. You can still be authentic even if some of your colors are hiding under the work. If you’re a “big picture” person, for example, it can be WORK to listen to someone share every last detail. If you’re an introvert, it takes WORK just to be around people all day. When you’re ill, it feels like WORK to stay focused on projects and be reasonably pleasant about it. If your behavior aligns with your values and your life-purpose, then you know you are still being authentic even if the behavior is HARD WORK. You’re congruent.
It is 100% okay to be “all business” when you need to be. Make hay while the sun shines! Or maybe I should say, make chlorophyll when the sun shines! But in an effort to produce results don’t let all the nuances — in you or those around you — get buried. See, pay attention to, acknowledge, confirm, and explore the full depth and range of YOU.
Change your communication, change your life.
I’m Rachel Beohm, a writer, speaker, and coach. Through nonverbal communication, I empower clients to show up as their biggest, boldest selves.
If you’d like tips on how to do that yourself, sign up here for “21 Days to Build a Better Life.” It’s a FREE 3-week email coaching program that I wrote to help you change your communication and your life.
This blog was first posted on my website. Click here to see the original.