Self Awareness - The Foundation of Emotional Intelligence

by Steve Faulkner on 16 May 2018 | filed in Freelancing Leadership Productivity Self Development

‘Self-awareness’ is a term that’s used loads, especially in business and self-development, and most of us seem to agree that it’s quite important. But when asked why, most people will struggle to provide a concrete answer, and because of that, we sometimes underestimate just how essential it is.

That’s a shame, because without a high level of self-awareness, your chances of being a decent leader, manager, and team member are pretty much zero. In fact, without a certain amount of self-awareness, you probably won’t manage very well as a human being at all, which is fine if you want to spend your life your on your own, which, of course, many people do. Nothing wrong with that, but your team, colleagues or employees may struggle with it a bit.

Luckily most of us have some of it, but if you have to regularly and successfully communicate with, and influence others, ‘some’ isn’t going to cut it.

For our purposes, the two main categories of self-awareness are:

1. Understanding and being aware of our emotions, what triggers them, how we respond to them.

2. The effect of our behaviour on others, how others see us and how accurate our perception is of this.

The two are linked, as our responses to certain triggers will result in thoughts or behaviours that will always influence those around us, and how we are perceived.

Bikers in the Grove

A couple of days ago, my partner and I were enjoying a nice glass (bottle) of prosecco in the park, on one of the first truly warm evenings of the summer (a big deal, after the seemingly endless winter). The park was crowded but the noise level just high enough to provide atmosphere. This was perfect until three teenagers (tops off of course) arrived on their low powered, but incredibly loud motorcycles and circled around…and around…and around. Long enough for my amusement to slowly move towards frustration and then anger.

From what I can remember from being 16, you can make a 50 cc motorbike sound really loud by taking the baffles out. This is a fairly vague memory and I have no idea of the process, but some people did it in an attempt to impress others, by flying along at about 25 miles an hour.

So let’s have a look at this through the lens of the two categories of self-awareness.

Emotional awareness and its effect

My response to this trigger, at first, was a mix of nostalgia, delight and amusement. I have memories of being young enough to believe that I looked cool on my little DT 50 (I didn’t). As time wore on, and the atmosphere was ruined for a good few hundred people, my thoughts moved from a kind of empathic pity to a disbelief that this was going on for so long. My emotions then moved towards anger and frustration. I had a choice, I could:

a) Get up and address the issue

b) Ignore it

c) Get all moody, or

d) Try to maintain my previous internal state and see the funny side.

‘A’ was out, because I was too scared, ‘B’ was a possibility but getting more difficult as time wore on, ‘C’ is my usual default, but ‘D’ was definitely preferable and, though it took a bit of effort, the one I went for, with some success (though Jo may have a different story).

Awareness of how we are seen by others

I can’t be sure, but in my opinion, the behaviour of the three kids was based on a belief that what they were doing would be perceived as impressive. In the same way that, when I was only thirteen years old and fascinated by the Sex Pistols, I believed that I would look cool in a pair of tartan bondage trousers as popularised my Malcolm McLaren (my Mum wouldn’t get me any, thank Christ).

The reality, and had they been more self-aware they would have been more accurate in their assumptions, was that nearly everyone was either laughing at them or judging them in a way that was the complete opposite of what they believed. In this situation, they had zero self-awareness.

In turn, my response was chosen in part because of the effect it would have on not only me, but also Jo and the time we were having, which was of course, very precious.

So what?

When we look at my response, I was aware of what was going on inside me, and with this knowledge I could make a conscious choice of how to respond, based on the most healthy outcome for the situation. Without an awareness of my emotions and the possible various consequences, my response would have been more of an instant reaction, possibly resulting in unpredictable consequences. My emotions could have gotten the better of me, controlling my behaviours, and I could have gotten a good kicking (they were younger, fitter, there were more of them and they had a quick getaway).

Of course, this was all pretty innocuous and not a challenging decision to make, but we’ve all seen those who have reacted to seemingly insignificant comments and actions in ways that seem disproportionate, if not completely illogical. We all have different triggers, usually based on past experiences. The key is in knowing what our triggers are and choosing our responses. In situations more challenging, this is, of course, easier said than done, and requires training and, like any skill, practice (I still struggle with many things, such as talking and rustling in the cinema, and those who lip-smack whilst eating).

It’s important to understand that the guys seemed to be fairly young and this lack of self-awareness is, of course, without wanting to sound too old, one of the joys of youth. With age, we can go too far the other way, to the point of crippling self-consciousness, constantly worried what people think and therefore stifling our behaviours, and often our dreams which is, of course, another form of low self-awareness.

There was no harm done and no doubt the guys were later high-fiving each other and had a lovely evening, as did we. But unfortunately, I’ve seen people equally oblivious in organisations. The co-worker who is convinced that their humour brings joy to many, never realising the offence they cause; the internally driven manager who thinks their lack of feedback shows trust in an employee, but is perceived as uncaring and results in no motivation, and the consequences of grossly misjudged behaviour now being highlighted by #metoo (yes, some people still believe such behaviour to be ‘harmless fun’!). At best a lack of self-awareness can provide humour, epitomized by David Brent, but at worst it can cause businesses to fail, teams to disintegrate and people to suffer.

Building our Self-awareness

As Daniel Goleman states:

“Emotional self-awareness isn’t something that you achieve once and then you’re done with it. Rather, every moment is an opportunity to either be self-aware or not. It is a continual endeavour, a conscious choice to be self-aware. The good news is that the more you practice it, the easier it becomes”

(Goleman D, The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence 2017)

In my training, I spend a good chunk of time on this, as it’s the foundation of all good leadership. Without being aware of our responses, we don’t have anything to improve upon, but the good news is, that it’s a learned skill, open to development and improvement.

In the next blog and video, I’ll be focusing on specific ways in which to develop and improve our responses. Thanks for reading.


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Thanks so much for taking the time to read this. If you would like me to come and speak at your event, or are interested in training, get in touch for a chat about what I can do to help raise the emotional intelligence of your organisation.

ILM level 3 and level 5 qualifications in leadership and management, and non-accredited courses provided.

Steve Faulkner – Clear Leadership Solutions.