How to Improve Self-Awareness

How to Improve Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is arguably the most important of all the emotional intelligence (EQ) competencies and decades of research concludes that it a precondition to effective management, leadership and high performance in the workplace. When we are self-aware:

… we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies.

Given these and many other, indisputable benefits that come from developing this foundational EQ competency, embarking on a journey to self-awareness sounds like something that needs to be a priority for all of us! Yet in today’s fast-paced business reality, many of us do not prioritize this aspect of development, either because we do not consider it as important as other business skills or because we are unaware of how, or whether at all, we can develop it. Thankfully we can, and like all self-improvement journeys, it requires commitment and effort. Here are 4 ways to help us get started.

1. Understand Our Brain

The more we know about our brain and how this works, the easier it is to understand our behavior, thoughts and motives. We don’t have to be brain specialists, but understanding some basic concepts can prove both interesting and helpful.

Our brain is made up of three parts, broadly responsible for; instinct, emotion, and logic, which work together to keep us safe and productive. In “Emotional Intelligence Works”, Dr Michael Kravitz and Susan D Schubert refer to these three parts as “advisors” who pick up information about what is going on around us guide our responses. However, because each part of the brain has a different focus and function, the advice they give can be, and often is , conflicting.

To illustrate this, think back to a time when your logic had signalled that something was a good idea, maybe you were thinking about hiring someone who had good qualifications and experience, but the voice of your instinct signalled conflicting information – that something was wrong, even if you could not pin-point exactly what it was, and held you back from making the hire.

Dr Michael Kravitz and Susan D Schubert summarize the respective skills, strengths and weaknesses of each of these parts of the brain (as seen in the table below) to help us better understand and consider the position of each.

So the next time you have a decision to make, stop and think. Make a conscious effort to hear the voice of all three parts of your brain and allow them the opportunity to contribute to the decision by asking yourself the following questions:

• Am I in imminent danger?
• What options do I have to consider?
• How have I dealt with this in the past and how successful was that approach?

As our self-awareness develops, we become better at hearing all three advisors and hence learn to make well-informed choices about our course of action.

2. Understand Our Life Story

Psychology professor Dan McAdams from Northwestern University has done much work in the area of “Narrative Identity” and postulates that:

“the stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities –- they are our personalities.”

All of us have a “narrative identity” – the story of our life, but it is more than just the story itself, it is how we understand and interpret this that determines our actions as well as our plans and goals for the future.

In order to improve our self-awareness, we have to understand our narrative, which involves moving out of our comfort zone and acknowledging and confronting the troughs as well as the peaks we have faced both in our personal lives and at work. One way to do this is through self-reflection and writing/journaling.

Much research concludes that such practices develop mindfulness and enable us to focus on the important things in our lives, as well as on specific or immediate events. Research conducted by Richard Davidson demonstrated a direct correlation between such mindfulness and changes in the brain – away from anger and anxiety and toward a sense of calm and well-being. Even for just a few minutes a day, self-reflection can move us to a higher degree of self-awareness and in fact this easy task is often sited as one of the habits successful leaders practice every day.

In “Discover Your True North”, Professor of Management Practice, Bill George suggests that leaders interested in improving their self-awareness, or deepening their understanding of their narrative can begin by reflecting on the following:

• Looking at your early life story, what people, events, and experiences have had the greatest impact in shaping the person you have become?
• In which experiences did you find the greatest passion for leading?
• How do you frame challenges and setbacks in your life?

So, take some time and ask yourself these questions – you may be surprised at how much you learn about yourself.


3. Feel Emotions Physically

When we experience an emotion, electrical signals travel through our brain and trigger physical sensations in our bodies. The physical sensations can be our heart rate increasing, our breathing quickening, or our mouth going dry. One of the skills of emotional self-awareness and a most effective way to help us understand our emotions as they are happening, is to learn how to spot the physical changes we feel in our bodies together with our emotions.

This is a skill that needs to be practiced in times of calm, since during times of intense emotion it is very difficult to feel any sensation other than the emotion of the moment. The following exercise can help us to understand how we feel our emotions in our bodies.

During self-reflection, or any other moments of calm, close your eyes and pay conscious attention to your body. Sense the speed of your heart beating. Notice the pace of your breathing. Feel how tense or relaxed the muscles are in your arms, legs, neck, and back.

Now, think of a positive event from your life—one that generated strong positive emotions. Think about the event in enough detail so that you begin to feel your emotions awaken, as though you are re-living the experience. Now take note of the physical changes you feel in your body.

• Does your breathing pattern change?
• Does your heart rate increase/decrease?
• Do your muscles tighten / relax? Work through various muscle groups (face, arms, hands, legs etc)
• Do you feel hotter or colder?

Repeat this process with an event from your life that generated negative emotion and again, take note of the physical sensations that you are experiencing.

Becoming attuned to our physical experience of emotion in this way, will give us the insight we need to spot the physical signs of our emotions in real time, during the course of our day. As we become more aware of which physical sensations accompany which emotions, we will find that we are often physically aware of an emotion before we’re mentally aware of it. This is an important accomplishment in striving towards self-awareness and self-regulation since the earlier we sense an emotion, the more able we are to manage it in constructive ways.


4. Seek Feedback

Self-awareness involves getting to know ourselves from the inside-out and the outside-in. The latter, more elusive of these perspectives can only be accessed if we open ourselves up to feedback from others, including friends, coworkers, mentors, supervisors, and family. Since, the image of who we see ourselves to be is perceived through the prism of our own experiences, emotions, prejudices, beliefs, preconceptions and our map of the world, it makes sense that this image may be perceived differently by those around us whose own prisms of experiences, emotions, etc are different to ours.
We need feedback! And when asking for feedback, we need to be sure to get specific examples and situations and to look for similarities in the information we gather. Listening to others’ views about our behaviour and our reactions can shed light on any blind-spots we may have, and can be a real eye-opener to how other people experience us.

Putting the perspectives of inside-out and outside-in together will help us see the entire picture of who we are, including how our emotions and reactions affect those around us. It is through the courage to seek the view that others see of us, that we can reach a level of self-awareness that will serve us well as we strive to become effective managers and leaders.

Self-awareness is not a destination but a journey. The practices above will help us travel faster and further along the way, allowing us to “be more confident and more creative…. make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively.” Embarking on a journey towards self-awareness will also make us “more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies.” (Tasha Eurich)

Lefki Angeli

EIMF Expert Trainer