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Global Flipchart


March 2017
| Issue #7

The importance of authentic engagement

By Rebecca Ejo Colwell, CEO Ten Directions

How to harness authentic engagement for richer group outcomes: why authenticity is crucial for achieving satisfying outcomes, how you might be hindering such honest discussion, and what you can do to stimulate healthy, lively discussions.

Why does authenticity matter?

I bet you’ve experienced, at least once, being with a group that was working on autopilot, going through the motions, and playing it safe, right? And were the outcomes rich and fruitful? Possibly not.

As facilitators committed to the groups and teams we work with, we care about creating substance, connections, and capacity. We want to trust that participants are sincerely engaging with real issues that matter to them. That’s how shared meaning is cultivated, and how healthy, vibrant cultures emerge.

If we want to achieve rich and satisfying group outcomes, we must cultivate authentic engagement. In order to see authentic engagement, we must find ways to encourage more spontaneous or vulnerable conversations.

Three things that can stifle authenticity - and their consequences

  1. When people feel unsafe to voice their opinions, we lose opportunities to surface valuable feelings and information.
  2. When people feel that no-one is genuinely interested in their contributions, they disengage.
  3. ‘Groupthink’ can lull them into the comfort of the status quo, and when people don’t share their genuine perspectives, the energy in the meeting goes flat, or even worse - innovation dries up.

Three ways we might unconsciously let our groups stay close to the surface

1. Bias towards inclusion over depth

As facilitators, we need to be equally sensitive to inclusion (the coherence and alignment of the group), depth (deepening shared meaning and understanding) and time (the efficiency of the meeting).

However, sometimes we might reason that inclusion, for example, is more valuable, resulting in a trade-off between time and depth. The reasoning goes something like this: “If I benefit from hearing as many voices as possible (inclusion), it erodes my capacity to facilitate deeper inquiries in the group (depth). I am aware of time constraints and I feel pressured to move through a full agenda (efficiency). If I surface more raw, honest input, it will require more time and effort.”

The added threat of unpredictability and losing our sense of control might sway us to make a familiar compromise: keeping the facilitation safe and the conversation superficial.

2. Bias towards keeping it safe

Some coaches are trained to hold safe and non-judgemental spaces, and therefore may more readily accept habitual responses rather than challenge people to go further. Many of us came from cultures where putting people ‘on the spot’ is seen as rude or invasive. I know this territory so well - as a Canadian, I am conditioned to automatically say “sorry!” when I may have intruded into the personal territory of another. I have had to consciously practice becoming comfortable extending into the personal domain of ‘the other’ in order to bring more authenticity and intimacy forward in the group.

3. Bias towards coherence over difference

We are conditioned to maintain mutuality, rapport, and a sense of togetherness on our outcomes. As such, surfacing otherwise unseen differences can feel threatening or scary. Lets face it, coherence and feeling unified feels much better than incoherence and separation or divisiveness. And this is a big problem.

When authentic engagement is happening, and individuals start surfacing difference in opinion, we need to pay attention and value each individual’s uniqueness above the commonalities in the group. Diversity enables us to create groups and cultures that are more robust and innovative. It’s what we need in order to grow capacity and evolve our world views.

That doesn’t mean that harmony is bad, it is just that we see it as more of an outcome than an enduring state. It is always possible to return to harmony on the other side of the differentiation.

How to support lively and authentic engagement

Here are some essential practices that can grow your capacity.

  • Create ground rules and psychological safety to encourage more authentic voices to come forward.
  • Be aware of your biases when you are engaging the group. For example:
    • Notice the pressure to end on time and the desire to go deeper in the conversation, and your bias one way or the other.
    • Are you holding back because you don’t want to cause others to ‘lose face’? Work with that edge, and try to stretch beyond your comfort zone to cultivate more depth.
  • Encourage people to speak from their subjective experience, and use “I” language. A response coming from the individual’s interior is more likely to reveal data that is more immediate, intimate and authentic than a superficial chat about the objective ‘observable facts’.
  • Praise people for sharing in the moment. Affirm authentic responses, and acknowledge when someone might be sharing something difficult or hard to hear.
  • Support differences to emerge, and amplify or reinforce the diversity in the room (as opposed to habitual reductive moves to find sameness).
  • Stay present to, attune to, and accept what is arising in the moment, so that when tensions surface, you are able to stay relaxed and welcome all voices, especially those that are marginalised. Mindfulness meditative practices enhance our ability to stay present with whatever the group is presenting.
  • Stay curious with the intimacy of ‘what is’ in the moment, even if it feels awkward, difficult or uncomfortable.
  • Acknowledge the diversity of perspective before you try to find the similarities and coherence. Keep the contributions in subjective expression before you move to harvest any shared insights or make a plan.

Finally, here are a few examples of questions that we love to ask to help surface an individual's authentic inner experience. For example, we are curious about authentic input about people’s beliefs, values, or how they relate to an issue.

Looking Ahead

  • What would be a really meaningful outcome for you?
  • How can you see your best self contributing to this?


  • Tell me about a time when you were most excited by / dissatisfied by x?
  • What is your experience of growing to meet a challenge?

Bringing them into the moment

  • What is most alive for you right now?
  • What are you most concerned about right now and how is it impacting you?

What are some of your favourite questions that elicit authentic responses and give you more depth to work with in your groups?

We’d love to continue the conversation. Ten Directions faculty Diane Musho Hamilton and Rebecca Ejo Colwell, co-founders of the Integral Facilitator® credential and program pathway. Rebecca and Diane will be hosting a pre-conference workshop "New Ways to Create Impact From the Inside Out" at the upcoming IAFNAC conference on Monday 8 May 2017 from 8:30am - 5pm. Find out more about their programmes and offerings.