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Self-Awareness: the Key to Better Relationships

Bob Little 

September 16, 2016

Self-awareness is one of the attributes of Emotional Intelligence, and is an important factor in achieving success. It means having a clear perception of your personality, including your strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. It also allows you to understand other people and how they perceive you, as well as your attitude and responses to them.

Most people develop their self-awareness as they mature. How they use it and then exercise choice about what they do and, importantly, how they respond to changing circumstances, has a profound effect on their success in interactions with others.

Developing self-awareness enables you to change your thoughts and interpretations. Doing this allows you to change your emotions. If you can manage your emotions, you can make the changes that you want to your behavior and personality – and that can help you to achieve what you want in your career and in life.

Relationships are easy until emotional turmoil occurs. When you can change your interpretation of this, you can change your emotions – and the emotional quality of your relationships. And when you can change the emotions in your relationships, you open up new possibilities in your life.

Having a clear understanding of your thought and behavior patterns helps you to understand other people. This allows you to empathize, which facilitates better personal and professional relationships.

Self-awareness – “self-concept” or “self-understanding” – is how we perceive or evaluate ourselves. It has two basic aspects: the existential self (the sense of being separate and distinct from others) and the categorical self (realizing that we’re “objects” that can be experienced and have properties).

What emerges over time is:

  • Your view of yourself (“self-image”).
  • How much value you place on yourself (“self-esteem” or “self-worth”).
  • Who you’d like to be (“ideal self”).

Self-image is affected by factors including your parents, friends and the media. It doesn’t necessarily reflect reality but, nonetheless, it’s “real” to the person who it belongs to.

Exploring self-image generates responses in four categories: physical, social roles, personal traits, and existential (abstract) statements. Typically, young people describe themselves more in terms of personal traits, whereas older people feel more defined by their social roles.

Among the ways of measuring self-esteem are the Harrill Self Esteem Inventory and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). Unsurprisingly, high self-esteem produces optimism and confidence in our abilities. Low self-esteem gives us a negative view of ourselves.

Self-esteem is influenced by five factors:

  • Others’ reactions.
  • Comparison with others.
  • Social roles – since some roles carry prestige, while others carry stigma.
  • Identification – as we take on roles, they become part of our personality and we “live up to them.”
  • Our parents’ influence.

According to self-awareness specialist Gary van Warmerdam, you can develop self-awareness
by focusing on your personality, thoughts, emotions, and behavior. For example, notice the thoughts and small triggers that culminate in an outburst of anger or frustration. Notice, too, times when you can change how your mind understands things. Making changes in your behavior is easier to do when you catch these thoughts and triggers early, before the roller coaster of thought and emotion has gathered momentum.

While developing self-awareness has personal advantages, it can also be a key tool in successful corporate leadership. A survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, for example, has rated self-awareness as the most important competency for leaders to develop.

Harvard Business School lists self-awareness as one of the key attributes its MBA program seeks in its candidates. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the University of Chicago, and the Loyola Marymount Business School in California are all creating programs that focus on self-awareness as the first step in leadership development.

The idea behind this is that leaders who develop their self-awareness also develop tools for leveraging their strengths and confronting their weaknesses. They earn credibility and cultivate relationships based on trust and respect – and they remain open to new ideas, inquiry and constructive criticism.

Moreover, leaders who practice self-awareness model the same values for employees and the organization as a whole. An organization that values self-awareness gains credibility and respect. It’s open to change and rewards flexibility, inquisitiveness and innovation.

To develop self-awareness, you must:

  • Understand yourself. You can use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and/or the Big Five Personality Test to assess your strengths and weaknesses. These tools can help you to recognize how you interact with others, what motivates your decision making, and how you approach problems.
  • Seek feedback about how you’re perceived. Ask your colleagues to participate in 360º feedback, as well as using less formal channels to solicit feedback. Ask direct questions, listen attentively, and don’t justify your actions. Asking for feedback creates an overall sense of accountability in an organization and encourages a practice of honest communication.
  • Create tools for self-reflection. Write down key decisions and the motivations that influenced them. After six to 12 months, re-examine those decisions, noting the ways in which your assumptions were accurate or misguided. This avoids the trap of revising history after the fact, and helps your organization to hone its decision-making process.
  • Admit mistakes. Admitting to a mistake is a sign of strength, not weakness. You damage your credibility most when you ignore mistakes or allow blame to fall on someone else. Taking responsibility for your actions and apologizing when you’ve made a mistake demonstrates the value you place on openness and accountability. These are attributes that are also essential for effective employees.
  • Be aware of others. Use the same tools of self-awareness to cultivate an understanding of your team. Understanding different personality attributes enables you to manage communication styles, and the ways that people approach projects and deadlines. Creating a team with diverse and complementary skills, all working to achieve the same goals, encourages employees to understand themselves and others better. It also helps you to create an organization that’s flexible, open to change, and self-aware.

So being self-aware isn’t as introverted, egotistical and downright selfish as it might appear. Done well, it’s the key to a successful career – and life – as well as the key to success for organizations, their leaders and the people that they employ.

Indeed, self-awareness as the key to efficiency and productivity in the workplace is the subject of next week’s blog post – with some introductory help from a louse and the eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert Burns.

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3 comments on “Self-Awareness: the Key to Better Relationships”:

  1. NDORZILME wrote:

    This article makes a lot of sense mostly for people like me who are dealing the issue of self awareness every so often as we do individual pastoral counseling
    Thank you for sharing these thoughts

  2. John Walter wrote:

    We created the True Mirror as a tool for increasing accurate self-awareness. This mirror, which reflects you as you are, not backwards, is really quite special because of one simple fact – within the non-reversed image, when you meet your eyes, they keep working properly. Who you are and how you are, in real time, is present, whereas in backwards mirrors, our eyes and faces simply don’t communicate properly, they simply don’t work as they should. Within seconds, most people simply stare at themselves. How are we to have accurate self awareness when this ubiquitous and unchallenged version of us is present in our experience since childhood?

    One of the key expressions that works in the True MIrror is our smile – because a real smile shows up in the eyes. Backwards, our eyes don’t sparkle, so smiles look fake, and we stop doing them.

    When people can get connected to their true nature this way, lets see how that improves self-awareness, and subsequently self-esteem.

  3. Nathalie Argueles wrote:

    Awesome stuff. Please keep writing more things like this. I really like the fact you went so in-depth on this and really explored the topic as much as you did. I read a lot of blogs but usually, it’s pretty shallow content. Thanks for upping the game here!