Personal development: Raising our self-awareness

As leaders, as business owners, as entrepreneurs, as people who simply want to do something meaningful, we will all have moments where we find ourselves stuck:

  • I feel like I’m running hard, but I’m not moving forward; I’m not growing.
  • I don’t know how I can get better.
  • I don’t have clarity on what I’m supposed to do.

Here’s the thing. There is no silver bullet for this, and this article certainly isn’t going to give you any solutions, nor should it. The challenges we face are often incredibly unique and nuanced, based on our personal situations. In fact, it’s extremely important to remember that whenever people give us ‘solutions’, they are often talking about something that worked for them, which may or may not work for us.

So how do we know what’s right for us? By exploring the fundamental tool of personal development: Self-awareness.

Self-awareness as a tool

Firstly, self-awareness isn’t a have / have not; everyone on the planet has some degree of self-awareness. However – much like any tool – there’s a big difference between having self-awareness and knowing how to use it to its fullest effect. Let’s explore three of the core elements:

  • The practice of self-reflection
  • Active listening and dealing with feedback
  • Intellectual humility (or knowing we might be wrong)

The practice of self-reflection

From gratitude journals to mindfulness apps, we live in a time in which we have access to an abundance of tools that provide a great starting point for self-reflection. These tools encourage us to get into the habit of pausing and to take stock of ourselves, to reflect on our actions, our thoughts, and our emotions.

Why call these tools a ‘starting point’? Because self-reflection doesn’t start and end with using an app, nor filling in a journal (otherwise that’s just a vanity metric for your life). The broader outcome of engaging in these activities is to help build mindfulness and gratitude into every aspect of our lives.

Pushing this one step further is where we get to self-reflection, where we consciously think and reflect on our experiences with a view of learning from them. For example, say we’ve had an argument with a colleague or a spouse. Instead of pushing this out of our minds, practicing self-reflection means actively thinking about it. Why did the fight happen? What did we do wrong? How could it be handled better next time?

The more we practice self-reflection, the more we strengthen our ability to be self-aware.

Active listening and dealing with feedback

Active listening in the context of improving our self-awareness goes beyond being present. It means really listening to the feedback or suggestions that people provide us, taking into consideration the context of who is giving us the feedback, why, and then being able to critically assess whether it's relevant or not.

One useful way of thinking about active listening is to consider the Radical Candor model of communication:

The quick definitions of each quadrant goes like this:

  • Ruinous Empathy: When people tell us what we want to hear, because they’re afraid it’ll hurt our feelings
  • Manipulative Insincerity: People give us meaningless (potentially even false) feedback that doesn’t add any value
  • Obnoxious Aggression: People who ‘tell it like it is’ but without any semblance of empathy or consideration for the audience
  • Radical Candor: Constructive criticism that is personal and relevant

As we exercise our self-awareness through active listening, we can begin to understand which type of feedback we are receiving and being able to direct people towards Radical Candor.

The flip side of ‘active listening to others’ is ‘active listening to ourselves’. Do you listen to yourself when you speak? Are you exhibiting empathy for your listener? Using the model above, is your Radical Candour coming across as Obnoxious Aggression to another person?

Communication is a two-way street. Just as we should reflect on what other people say to us, we should also reflect on what we say to others.

Intellectual humility (or knowing we might be wrong)

So we are practicing self-reflection, and we are actively listening to others and ourselves. However, to genuinely apply feedback and develop ourselves personally, we come to the most challenging aspect of self-awareness: being able to set aside our pride and ego.

Over time, as we become experts and leaders in our respective fields, we start to develop a deep confidence and belief in our experiences. This isn’t wrong and, in fact, is why people come to us for advice and guidance. However, the more we become established in our world view, the easier it is to dismiss suggestions from other people who we don’t know or make excuses for feedback we don’t like.

Intellectual humility is about being open-minded to the fact that we can always be better. That by keeping an open mind, even the most mundane experience or negative feedback we receive can actually be a good learning experience. This is not dissimilar to Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’, in that we should strive to adopt a mindset in which we can learn from every experience we have.

However, this starts with the simple admission that we can sometimes be completely and utterly wrong, and it can take an incredible amount of self-awareness to be able to set aside our pride and remain open to learning.

Self awareness is a tool; it’s a ladder

At the start of this article, we talked about times when we can feel stuck or that we’re not growing. There are a million and one articles about different tools or methodologies to follow, and no limit to the number of people who will happily tell us what to do. Some of those may be right, some not, and some may even dangerously lead us astray (manipulative insincerity).

At the end of the day, we are the best judge of what works for ourselves, and to do that, we need to continue to raise our self-awareness.

There are three core elements of self-awareness:

  1. Being able to exercise self-reflection on a regular basis, so that we are consciously thinking about what we’re doing
  2. Actively listening to the different types of feedback we receive, as well as actively listening to the information we give to other people so that we can always achieve radical candor
  3. Maintaining intellectual humility, so when we do get ideas or feedback that can help us grow, our pride doesn’t get in the way

Most importantly, self-awareness is a ladder. The higher we climb, the more we can live each day with clarity and continue to develop ourselves.

What do you think? How do you practice raising your self-awareness? What other elements do you think are core?