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Self Awareness Part 1: Reflection, asking and telling

There is an awful lot written about self-awareness and I was loath to add more content onto prospective readers when there is so much of good value in the public domain already. How fitting it is that my own self-awareness kicked in as I reflected on what truly lay behind my thinking. Sure, there is a lot of content out there and each version offers a different perspective. Different authors have different ways of ‘joining the dots’ on behalf of their readers. One reader’s perception of perfectly joined dots might be another reader’s version of chaos! In short, all content has potential value for someone. Unshared that same content has no value to anyone! So, my self-awareness correctly identifies me as procrastinating, perhaps shy of sharing my thinking and opinion, and the call to action is to get on and join up some dots!

If you would like to engage with my content on reflection, asking and telling and how these help to build productive self-awareness you are very welcome to read on……

Self-awareness. One of those terms that we all have a sense we understand and buy into the belief that it is a good thing. We all might say in our own mind ‘sure, I know what self-awareness is and I know that I have it!’ yet the truth is that we are often the poorest of judges of what level of self-awareness we do apply in our thinking and feeling, our actions and in our decision making.

This resource is about what self-awareness is and the risks and benefits of having it. You should consider this as an introduction which has the intention of encouraging you to find out more based on your own unique context. Alongside bringing your attention to internal and externally derived self-awareness there will be reference to Emotional Intelligence and a model called the Johari Window. You will gain an understanding of the parts that reflection, asking and telling have on building a productive level of self-awareness.

First, a couple of definitions. Daniel Goleman describes self-awareness is ‘knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions’ while Courtney Ackerman describes it as ‘the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection’.

Both capture a different sense of self-awareness. One focussing on understanding what is going on inside and the other suggesting the importance of viewing ourselves from the perspective of others. It is also worth noting how Stephen Covey described self-awareness as one of the four attributes that makes human beings distinct from all other species, the others being imagination, conscience and independent will.

The importance of self-awareness is also made clear given its positioning as the foundation stone of Emotional Intelligence. The collection of skills, first described by Dan Goleman, is now widely accepted as being essential in the workplace, in leadership development, and simply in being a well-rounded human being. Self-awareness is a necessary skill in supporting our self-management which in turns supports our social awareness and ability to build relationships. Putting it another way our own self-awareness helps us to recognise our points of difference in relation to others. Noticing difference means we can be curious about it and choose to find a way to make the connections that build rapport which in turn may offer opportunities for working together effectively.

What then about the benefits of self-awareness? There are four main areas: personal development, professional development, coping with societal level change, and mental health.

In terms of personal development all of the following are strengthened through self-awareness:

· Greater confidence and resilience

· Deeper emotional intelligence

· Better understanding of your strengths, areas of challenge, and motivators

When it comes to professional development self-awareness will influence:

· Higher levels of job satisfaction

· More effective decision making

· Stronger relationships arising from more effective communication

· Greater creativity

· More effective leadership

Societal level change impacting localities, nations and continents have a unique impact on each of us, often showing up with strong emotional connections to the change issue. Self-awareness can help us to understand, process and rationalise what might start out as a knee jerk response into something that each of us can consciously choose to act on. We all have recent experience of our response to political upheaval, to coping with a global pandemic, and in the crucial debate about action in the face of climate change. We know that none of the challenges of this nature will be solved by knee jerk responses.

Finally, a balanced level of self-awareness is essential to good levels of motivation and for reducing levels of anxiety, stress and depression. Self-awareness is not just about being a better worker it is about being a better and healthier you.

Tasha Eurich writes about the importance of breaking down self-awareness into two parts, internal (ISA) and external (ESA). These are distinguished by where we source the information that informs our self awareness. For ISA this information is sourced from within. It is the ability to understand our values, beliefs, motivations, and our strengths, challenges and stressors. For ESA the information is sourced from our external environment, most commonly through other people. ESA is about having a clear understanding of how other people experience us, and how they witness our values, beliefs, motivations.

Eurich constructed a quadrant model using axes that reference low and high levels of ISA and ESA. She characterised the four quadrants the first two of which are captured below. Using her language our journey towards greater self-awareness is a journey from being a seeker to an engager.

Let’s assume that the journey is really that simple. What are some entry level techniques that might help you to grow your internal self-awareness (ISA)? They are captured in the words reflection, curiosity, mindfulness, and purpose each of which feature in the practice recommended below.

· Reflect regularly on your experiences, big and small

· Be curious about your thinking (cognition) and emotions (feeling)

· Be mindful of your behaviour and how it impacted on you and others

· Reflect on your purpose and whether your actions helped you achieve your purpose

To support you in this practice make sure that you protect time for self-reflection during the day. It might be dotted through your day or a period at its end. You will also benefit from capturing your thinking. The time you allocate, the frequency of the reflective period and their duration, and your means of capturing must all work for you and your lifestyle. You need to form a positive habit which will only happen if you experience its value yourself. Another useful aspect of reflection is to clarify to yourself the learning that has arisen from it and how you might take action to make use of that learning.

The other part of the journey from seeker to engager is to build external self-awareness (ESA) which can be achieved by putting yourself ‘in the way of’ feedback from other people. For example, This might be ‘formal’ feedback dialogue around the outcomes of an assessment or workplace appraisal. This type of feedback is all well and good, but tend to be occasional. As important is asking for feedback when you need it, and also being tuned into the unsolicited feedback that is coming to you all the time you are with other people. A challenge in developing ESA is that the quality of the feedback you receive will only ever be as good as your ability to remain comfortable while we are receiving it. Be aware that becoming defensive in response to feedback will shut it down immediately. Avoid this by being curious about the feedback, seeking clarification to ensure a common understanding, and always thank the person who has gifted you their feedback. Part of the challenge of giving and receiving feedback is the influence of a power/ expertise differential (real or perceived) between the provider and receiver. Take care that you are aware of the positional bias that might be in play in your feedback conversations (in itself a great example of self-awareness).

Practicing self-reflection and soliciting feedback does have the capacity to help you go from seeker to engager. However, productive self-awareness is a balance between ISA and ESA. Eurich talked about those scenarios in which these two are not in balance in the remaining two quadrants in her model. What are the risks of imbalance?

Firstly, there are introspectors with high ISA and low ESA. Introspectors and very self-reflective and inward looking yet they don’t attenuate their reflections with evidence from their environment, either through not noticing it or by actively avoiding it. The consequence can be that an introspector may go over their analysis of the same experience again and again in what psychologists call rumination, a behaviour that is known to cause more negative mood.

The other state of imbalance is one with people tending towards low ISA and high ESA, a group called pleasers. Pleasers focus their attention on trying to be what they think people want them to be based on a combination of feedback and multiple interpretations of what that feedback might mean. They try to get into the head of the people around them to understand what they want and loose sight of their own ability to choose and to exert their own independent will.

The consequence of both of these out of balance states is closed loop thinking leading to a sense of stuckness and inertia that will show up as procrastination and indecision. How then do you go about journeying from seeker to engager without inadvertently finding yourself being an introspector or pleaser?

Achieving the right levels of ISA is supported through being careful about asking the right type of question to guide your self-reflection. Some good practice examples of reflection questions to ask yourself are provided below. The key features of these are that they must focus on you and not stray into second guessing other people. They should avoid starting with ‘Why’ which activates thinking in evaluative mode which tends to move towards blame, ‘wrongness’, and a focus on failure. ‘What, how, and when’ questions activate experiential thinking which focusses on how you experienced the event you are focussing on. It is important that you are curious about your thinking and feelings and you will benefit from exploring where your choices and your intended purpose had an influence. Ensure that you cover both what went well and what presented you a challenge as learning is possible from a position of experience just as much as from one of inexperience. Finally, think about what learning you are taking into the future and how it might be applied directly and also adapted to meet unforeseen challenges.

· How did my thoughts and feelings influence my behaviour?