knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom — Aristotle
The racist client
Running a residential painting business as a 20-year old was a lot of fun. I had the opportunity to meet new people every day who needed painting services. I got to know them through conversations we held while drawing up the estimation for the project. My team enjoyed and relished the challenge of making our clientele’s homes beautiful after we completed our work. We took pride in the experience we provided.
One day, I was caught completely off guard by an ignorant customer. My crew completed a great job as promised only for the rain to start minutes after we left for the day. This of course did some damage to the job and some sections of the walls were washed out by the rain. On my next encounter with her, she was upset and started throwing around insults linked to me being an immigrant. She yelled — “Go back to your country!”.
I remember being shocked and taken aback, this was my first personal encounter with glaring racism. At that moment, I was able to recognize what I was feeling; as a business owner and as a young black man. I concluded that she was being insensitive, unreasonable and deliberately trying to hurt me. I also realized that I was in control and had options, I could escalate the situation or walk away. I recall asking myself, is she worth the trouble? Being closely in touch with my emotions enabled me to handle the situation with a cool head and make the right decision.
What is emotional awareness?
Renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman defines emotional or self-awareness as the ability to recognize your internal states, preferences, emotions and their effects. When you shine the light of awareness to an emotion, you gain powerful control. Emotional awareness gives you control even when external situations are out of your control and helps you to know which emotions you are feeling and why. It also helps you to realize the links between your feelings and what you think, do and say.
Self-awareness is a skill that requires focus and concentration. Being self-aware means that you can wire your emotions into an internal dashboard, using it to guide and control your actions. Without it, you are at the mercy of your emotions.
Awareness also helps you to have a guiding understanding and clarity of what your values and goals are and how you can act accordingly to get there. In the example from the prejudiced customer, my goal was to provide great customer experience and get paid for good work. Being dragged into unproductive conflict was not going to bring me any closer to the latter.
Instead of exploding, I took a deep breath and calmly expressed that her comment was offensive and unfair for something that was out of anyone’s control. I told her that my crew would be back to fix the washout in a few hours, and walked away. My team fixed the job and we got paid.
Also, awareness gives you a clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses. It helps you to examine yourself honestly to get to the root of your problems. For example, maybe people don’t like to talk to you. If you are not self-aware, you may just get frustrated or accept it, or worse, not even notice that people are annoyed by you. Self-awareness helps you to examine your reality, and maybe admit that you ramble too much, don’t listen enough, aren’t as engaging or present in conversations. This will help you to find ways to correct or change your habits and be a better communicator.
This awareness of how your emotion and thought patterns affect what you are doing is the foundation of emotional competence. If you lack self-awareness, you are vulnerable to being sidetracked by emotions run amok. Awareness helps you to adjust and continually make improvements to improve performance in your life and career.
The benefits of achieving competence in this skill include the capacity to manage your impulsive feelings, stay motivated, have an understanding of how people around you are feeling and grow social skills including those that are essential for leadership and teamwork.
How You Can Begin?
You can develop your self-awareness skills proactively or reactively. A proactive approach involves calibration and the latter approach involves triggering. We recommend exercising a mix of both approaches for better results.
The ‘calibration’ exercise requires a set of steps that will help you to identify the gap between how you perceive yourself in contrast to how you are perceived by others.
- Pick a trait that you wish to improve. For example “Patience”.
- Form a question around the trait. For example: “On a scale of 1–10 with 10 being highest, how patient am I?”
- Answer the question about yourself: For example “5”.
- Try to understand your self-assessment by probing further. For example: “Why not 4 or 6?”
- Write down the names of 3 people you trust to be honest with you.
- Explain that you are following an exercise to improve your self-awareness. Ask each individual the question(s) in step 2. Write down their answer.
- Ask each individual the follow-up question in step 4. Write down their answer.
- Compare your self-assessment with that of your confidants.
If the gap is small or negligible, it means that you are self-aware about a particular trait or topic. You may find that there is a large gap between how you perceive yourself, versus how others perceive you for a given trait or topic. Understanding this gap is important because it allows you to create the next steps for areas that you need to improve.
The ‘trigger’ exercise is a reactive approach to developing your emotional awareness. This exercise requires summoning strong emotions and breaking down your triggers.
- Prepare a notepad.
- Pick a topic that triggers you. For example: Opposing political view.
- Find an article or video that argues in favour of the opposing political view.
- Read the full article or watch the whole video. You should feel triggered — i.e. experience some level of frustration or annoyance.
- Write down the name of at least one emotion that you feel. If you can note down two or three, that is even better. For example “Disturbed”.
- Break down each emotion, one at a time: “Why did I feel disturbed? What moment in this article or video triggered this emotion?”. Write down the reasons.
- Read the article or watch the video again, and as each emotion begins to surface, identify and name it in your head. For example “I am currently feeling disturbed because that reporter said…”
- Note how you feel each time you finish naming the emotion and breaking it down.
When you name and break down an emotion, it should reduce the physiological tension that gets built up in your body. As mentioned earlier, being able to shine a light of awareness on a given emotion should give you a higher sense of control to keep a cool head. The more you practice this, the better you will get at reacting on the fly in real-world situations.