Know thyself

What does it mean to be self-aware and what can we do to improve our understanding of ourselves?

The latest episode of Facilitation Stories – a podcast from the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) – came out on Monday. It’s a roundup/review of the recent IAF England and Wales conference which I attended last month. If you listen carefully you may hear a familiar voice around half way through!

There was so much going on over the two days at the conference, and so many parallel sessions to choose from, that it was interesting to hear about some of the things I missed. One thing that particularly stood out to me was Helene’s reflection from a session about the facilitator’s inner dialogue:

the idea that we need to understand ourselves better to be able to do facilitation better is really important

The idea that understanding ourselves better can help us to perform better at work isn’t new. And it’s certainly not limited to facilitation, or coaching. It’s often a core part of development programmes for managers and leaders. When I did a course for new managers, nearly a decade ago now, we did a whole module called Managing Self with the aim of supporting “the development of your individual performance and effectiveness through increased self-awareness” (yes, I do still have the course handbook and notes!)

But what do we actually mean by self-awareness? And how can we increase it?

Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist researching self-awareness, defines two types of self-awareness:

The first is something we named internal self-awareness. And that’s what most people think about when they hear the term. It’s an inward understanding of who we are, what makes us tick, what are our personalities. But equally important is something called external self-awareness, which is having an appreciation and an understanding for how other people see us.

I like this division of self-awareness into two types because it can help us to understand how we can improve our self-awareness. Self-reflection would be an obvious place to start, but it’s clear that to improve our all round self-awareness we also need to seek the help of others.

An exercise that springs to mind for this is the Johari window which can be done in either a personal or work context. You and a group of your trusted peers take it in turns to select words to describe you from a list of adjectives. These words are then mapped into a 2×2 grid with each quadrant representing a different area of awareness:

  • Open – what is seen by both you and your peers
  • Blind – what is seen by your peers, but not seen yourself
  • Hidden – what you see but your peers do not
  • Unknown – what neither you nor your peers see
Four quadrants of the Johari Window: open, blind, hidden and unknown
Four quadrants of the Johari window

The Johari window can be a useful starting point to open up discussion, or as a prompt for self-reflection, on how we see ourselves and how we’re seen by others. The aim is to develop the open area either horizontally (into the blind area) by seeking and listening to feedback from your peers or vertically (into the hidden area) through sharing more about yourself.

There are other techniques for increasing self-awareness, 360 feedback for example. And there’s definitely a role that coaching can play. One of the descriptions of coaching that I particularly like is from W. Timothy Gallwey in the Inner Game of Work which likens coaching to holding a mirror up so a person can see themselves. It makes me think of this Isaac Asimov quote:

It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?

Are there any other activities or techniques that you’ve come across for increasing self-awareness?

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