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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?

· What was the key influence in my choice of behaviour?

· What assumptions influenced my choice of behaviour?

· What was my purpose & did my actions help me achieve it?

· What skills did I use to good effect?

· What did I do that might have held me back?

· How did my behaviour influence other people?

· Were there any other resources that I might have used?

· How would I do things differently to get a better outcome?

· Is there any learning I can take from this and apply in different parts of my life?

Achieving the right levels of ESA require a combination of asking and telling. The very act of asking for feedback is telling people that you are open to learning from their experiences of you. You can take telling one step further and tell them what you feel you need to be the best you can be and then be open to the feedback that they share with you in response. Below is a list of exemplar questions that you might ask of your trusted friends and colleagues to solicit their feedback. You will notice that they encourage both objective, evidence based responses and subjective, belief based responses. Both are important to you as is the importance of knowing the difference between these two sorts of responses.

· How do you think my performance helps us to achieve our purpose?

· How do you feel about the way I behave when we are working together?

· What might I do more of/ less of to help our relationship to be as effective as possible?

· How might I help you to be the best you can be?

· How might I use the resources available to me to increase my effectiveness?

The journey to greater self-awareness is a lifelong one for all of us. It will ebb and flow over time and be influenced by our current context and the accumulation of our life experiences up to our present day. The content in this resource will have raised your interest in thinking about your own self-awareness and its importance in your personal and professional development, whatever your stage of life. Do think about your internal and external self-awareness and how to balance them in that ideal state of ‘engager’. Avoid the pitfalls of being a compulsive people pleaser always looking for leadership from others, or a ruminator unable to break free from loops of unproductive thinking. Above all, don’t forget the value of three simple actions: reflection, asking and telling and their value in generating a balanced self-awareness.

I want to bring this session to a close with a quotation from Anais Nin, the French born essayist. She said ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’. Her words capture the reality that we each interpret the world around us differently. Our self-awareness allows us to better understand what it is that creates our unique perspectives and our beliefs. Having self-awareness is the basis for us understanding that our views will be different from other peoples. It offers the opportunity to recognise and make use of our points of difference, rather than seeing them as a potential threat. Achieving this will harness diversity leading to greater creativity and better decision making. It will also help build effective relationships that will enhance your personal and professional development.

Appendix: The Johari Window and Self-Awareness

In a previous blog on self-awareness we talked about internal and external self-awareness and how the skills of reflection, asking and telling can help build and maintain a productive, balanced self-awareness.

The skills of reflection, asking and telling are also key parts of the Johari window model, particularly asking and telling. The Johari window was devised by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 as a tool investigate self-awareness. The model is based on thinking about what we know and don’t know about ourselves and how that intersects with what is known and not know about us by other people.

Illustrating this graphically above you see that four levels of awareness are created by relating our self knowledge (or lack of it) to what is or isn’t known about us by other. The quadrant in the top left is the open self in which a particular personal trait is known to you (as the subject) and to another person. These might include visible physical characteristics or your behaviours where your intention and the other party’s experience are the same (for example, you see yourself as good humoured and others experiencing you as light-hearted and funny).

Top right is the blind self where you are not aware of a personal trait, yet it is known to others. For example, you might offer your opinions freely and at length, thinking that this is helpful while others might see it as dominating.

Bottom left is the hidden self where you are aware of a personal trait, but others are not. For example, we might deliver presentations with outward confidence, yet be terrified inside. The hidden self may also be where mental health issues reside that we keep from the outside world by keeping up a brave face.

Finally, bottom right is the unknown self, a place where the drivers for a particular trait or behaviours are so deep in our subconscious that we don’t know about them, and neither do other people.

If you think about the strong relationships you have and the effective teams that you are part of, the likelihood is that they will are based on a good understanding of each other. Creating a good understanding between people is most certainly supported by high levels of individual self awareness.

‘A good understanding of each other’ in the Johari model is when there is a larger open self zone in comparison to the other zones, effectively an opening of the open self Johari window. If you are aspiring to have strong relationship with other individuals and within your teams then you should look to create an environment in which people are comfortable to open their Johari window as in the figure below.

Critical to opening your Johari window in this way is the presence of trust. Sharing more about yourself and receiving feedback from others are both challenging scenarios where the sharer or the feedback receiver are putting themselves in a position of vulnerability. If the fear of vulnerability is greater than the perceived benefit of sharing something about our self, we will hold that something close within our hidden self. If that same vulnerability causes us to react defensively to thoughtful and carefully delivered feedback from others, we are unlikely to resolve our blind spots and eventually people will form a habit of not offering feedback to you to avoid being rebuffed.

Accepting the importance of trust how then do we go about opening our Johari window. This is where we return to the importance of having a good underlying self-awareness (internal and external) and the value of asking, telling, and reflection. If you recognise that there is a gap between your intention and the reality of how others receive your behaviour you have an opportunity to be interested in that gap. You can ask people to give feedback on how they are receiving your way of being. Asking opens your Johari window by growing your ‘open self’ at the expense you ‘blind self’.

If you know something important about what helps you perform at your best yet know other people are not aware of your needs perhaps you should tell the people who might benefit from knowing. Don’t make the assumption that they do. By choosing to tell your Johari ‘open self’ window will open at the expense you ‘hidden self’.

The Johari window is a useful model to help thinking about our self-awareness and how we engage with other people. As with most models it is only as useful as the reflection and the conversation that is encourages and supports. Use it in your own thinking’ and in building trust within and between groups of which you are a member. This trust will support the right level of disclosure and sharing to allow the group, and the individuals within it, to be the best that they can be.


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