When asked about the most effective way to work on self-awareness, my answer is always “time & truth”. Really, “truth & time” would be more accurate, but it doesn't roll off the tongue quite so well.
And, what I mean is that we need the strength and safe space to be honest with ourselves, as well as, the distance and perspective to be analytical about it. I usually advocate journaling as the practical way to achieve this “time & truth” approach.
Journaling gives you a safe place to be honest about what’s going on - physically, mentally, emotionally - in your life. You can capture the facts, those specific events or challenges that you are experiencing. Add to that your current interpretation of those facts, how you perceive them, what you make of them. Then, you can detail how you’re feeling about them. This is the “truth” part, and it only works if you’re being as honest as you can be in that moment.
I started journaling toward the end of my first marriage, in 2006, and I’m still at it. I never approached journaling with a lot of structure, I wrote when I felt like it. Dollar store composition books and ballpoint pens were my tools. I captured the events that felt important, I noted my thoughts about those events, I recorded my feelings, my reactions. To me, the specifics (frequency, format, medium) feel less important than dedication and commitment.
For some people, the act of journaling provides the necessary insight to objectively look at the situation, their feelings, their reactions. My personal experience shows limits to this insight. You’re still very close to whatever happened, and often that closeness obscures your view. Imagine standing on a mountain top, while you may have a wonderful view looking out, it's really hard to get a good look at the very mountain you’re on.
This is where the “time” component comes in, time yields that better perspective. Just like that mountain you stood on and couldn’t clearly see, distance yields a better view. Weeks, months, even years will all provide differing views of that “truth”. The clarity and insight can be amazing.
About two years after my first marriage ended, my coach encouraged me to pull out those notebooks and read through those pages. It was hard, much harder than I anticipated. There were painful memories and painful feelings. In addition to the sting of remembrance, there was the added bite of my own skewed perspective. Interpretations I was so certain of then, seemed much more questionable now. I more clearly saw my own participation. I also recognized my growth.
Journaling isn’t a quick, easy fix, it’s not magic. There is no shortcut to better self-awareness. When partnered with the want to grow, the want to develop your emotional intelligence; journaling provides some of the highest ROI you’ll find.
Do you journal? How has it helped build your self-awareness? Your EQ?
Recently, I shared some thoughts on Hanlon’s Razor and its relationship to self-awareness and mindfulness. Now, I’d like to do the same with the Fundamental Attribution Error, another tool that supports our emotional intelligence growth.
The Fundamental Attribution Error (also known as the “attribution effect”) addresses our tendency to attribute the behavior of others to their character, and attribute our own behavior to environmental factors. Or, the Tim Smith version - when others behave poorly, it's due to their flawed character; when we behave poorly, it's because of the situation. That second part makes this tool a powerhouse in developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
Let’s look at an example using my friend Jai again. Over coffee, he tells me about an occurrence at work where he lost his temper and barked at a peer. I smile, and listen, and think to myself, “Oh Jai, you’re such a hot-head, you really need to work on your EQ and relax.” I don’t have to say it aloud, I’m attributing his behavior to his character, to having a short-temper and poor EQ.
A few days later, I find myself frustrated and act out similarly; I bark at someone too. But it's different when I do it. In my situation, its due to how immature my co-worker acted. Plus, I hadn’t had enough coffee that morning. In my review of the occurence, I give myself a ‘hall’ pass because of the situational factors of having an immature coworker and insufficient caffeine.
So what? An excellent question! What if we take our knowledge of the Fundamental Attribution Error and stick it in our back pocket, and we keep it there until we have the opportunity to use it. It won’t take long, I promise. We consistently assess and evaluate and attribute the actions of others. Knowing about the attribution effect helps create a little pause, that mindful moment. In that pause you can consider what spin you may be putting on the behavior of others, and if you’re holding yourself to similar standards.
When I work with a team of leaders to improve how they interact, we often talk about the Fundamental Attribution Error. It's a powerful tool to help raise awareness about our perspectives, those colorful lenses through which we see ourselves and others. A team or person who genuinely integrates this into their interactions can make huge strides in developing their self-awareness and emotional intelligence, which helps them work more efficiently and more effectively.
What do you think? How might you use this, or how do you use this?
Recently I learned of the principle of Hanlon’s Razor, the sum of which is simple - “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Or my spin - don’t attribute to malice what is adequately explained by something else.
“Nature abhors a vacuum”, taught Aristotle. As such, we humans are prone to fill up space. For the purposes of this article, I am referring to the “space” around neutral pieces of information. As in nature, a vacuum will suck in nearby matter to fill its void; we too, are quick to fill up the space around facts with our own interpretation, our own stories.
For example let’s suppose that my friend Jai and I plan to meet up for coffee. I show up, order a drink and sit there alone, waiting. And waiting. He’s late and that is a fact. The space around the fact is “why”, why is he late. He’s late because he forgot; he’s late because he blew me off for some better, last minute offer; he double booked because he doesn’t respect my time; he’s late because he doesn’t really value our friendship.
Hanlon’s Razor asks us to consider causes other than malice. What if Jai had a flat tire? Or a sick kid? Or got caught in traffic? Those are all also possible causes for his tardiness. Hanlon’s Razor is a tool to help us create a bit of a pause. To get us to reflect for just a minute before we fully buy into our own story.
Now admittedly, my story could be right. Jai may not value our friendship or respect me. But what do I have to lose by taking just a little pause and considering other possibilities?
When I work with coaching clients on improving self-awareness, one area where we often focus is examining perspective by taking a pause. We focus on not only creating the pause, or in current terms, that mindful moment, but we go deeper and examine the patterns of spin we place on the stories we tell ourselves. Then we move into shifting unproductive patterns from negative toward neutral, toward openness, allowing us to be healthier, happier, and more productive.
As we move into the holiday season, and its accompanying stress, having tools, like Hanlon’s Razor, can be tremendously helpful. We can learn to create that pause, that mindful moment. We have the ability to question our own spin on the facts. We can catch ourselves before we react to one of the typical stories we tell ourselves; we can move into a space that allows more freedom of thought; we can choose to respond instead of react.
We were at a social event over the weekend, a fundraiser - lots of people, music, food, adult beverages, dancing, silent auction - so, when I say a social event, I mean the whole package.
The “we” that I am talking about would be Michele, my wife and partner, and me. At one point, we were chatting with a friend/acquaintance (I’ll come back to this in a bit) and she was talking about her very outgoing husband and how at these types of functions she tends to stay in one place while he “makes the rounds”. She talks and visits and sees all of the people she knows, but compared to her husband it almost seems that she stays in one place.
Michele jokingly said, that’s just like us - we’re “The Hermit & The Hurricane”. We all laughed and she added - he likes to hole up in his cave while I spin around and around - we all laughed again, and then she added the obligatory “not really”. And though she was being funny, there are certainly flavors of the truth in what she said.
I have a clear preference for introversion, and she has a clear preference for extraversion. I’m not really a hermit and I don’t really have a cave, she’s not really a hurricane - and while she does interact a lot more than me she is far from simply spinning around. We are fortunate in a way, both of us were familiar with Myers-BriggsⓇ and our own preferences before we met. We have talked, joked and even argued about preferences many times over the last five years.
For me, a social event (e.g. this fundraiser) can be fun and exciting and simultaneously exhausting. It can take a lot of energy to stay “on” and to continue to be engaged in new conversations and introduced to new people, over and over. I’m not shy nor am I a wallflower, I enjoy people and socializing and interacting. I am also aware that it can take a lot of my energy and leave me feeling wiped out.
Michele has a different experience. She is energized by by those interactions and conversations and meeting new people (i.e. making new friends). For her, with a preference for extraversion - that is what she is doing, she is making new friends. Those of us who prefer introversion, tend to take a slower approach - the vast majority of people I meet start off in the “acquaintance” category and with time and positive interactions, you eventually move into the “friend” category.
I want to make a quick pause here, there is no right or wrong here - that is always my main point any time I work with a leader or group on MBTIⓇ. No preference is good or bad, they just are. My personality type work tends to focus on a two step process: step one - understand your own preferences, step two - understand that others may have different preferences, and that is very ok. Two steps, that’s it. I’m ok, you’re ok.
Now, that doesn’t make it all magically easy. The Hurricane may experience The Hermit as a stick-in-the-mud, because I really just want to stay home and enjoy a quiet weekend. And, The Hermit may find The Hurricane hard to keep up with because seriously I don't think I can learn one more name at this get-together.
I see one of the keys to our successful relationship being an awareness of not just our own preferences, but also each others preferences. Extraversion is as much a part of who she is as her dark hair. I don’t have to analyze it or judge it or assess it; I simply have to accept it. She does the same for me.
Learning to get along better with those that are different that you can take some time. Awareness is that first step, becoming aware of your own preferences and that others may have differing preferences. Next come communication and managing expectations, but that is for a different discussion.
Take a look at the people close to you. How are you similar? How are you different? How do you manage those differences? What do you love about them? What drives you a little crazy? And, most important - How well do you accept them for who they are?