Home » Development » Leadership toolbox: how to build self-awareness

Leadership toolbox: how to build self-awareness

A cartoon of a person walking a dog. The person's thought-bubble is full of music, other people, cars, work etc, while the dog's thought bubble shows only the scene they are walking in.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Self-awareness is a key life and leadership skill. At its most basic level, self-awareness is about developing your knowledge and understanding of yourself, and being able to access that knowledge and understanding in real-time to help you better navigate your life.

Its benefits include:

  • greater self-confidence
  • heightened sensitivity to thoughts, emotions and feelings
  • improved critical thinking
  • more effective leadership
  • deeper emotional intelligence
  • stronger relationships with others
  • better communication skills
  • increased ability to learn from experiences and apply lessons to future experiences

The value of self-awareness

Self-awareness is a bit like riding a bicycle. Not one of us is born knowing how to do it, but we can all learn the skills. And once we’ve learned the skills, we’ll always have them with us.

And just like learning to ride a bicycle, developing our self-awareness takes practice, involves some mistakes, and is much easier to learn when we’ve got people around us who can model the skills and support us through the inevitable wobbles and scrapes.

A painted bicycle sign on a grey paved road

Self-awareness is like riding a bicycle – it can be tricky at the start, but over time it will feel completely natural.
Image source: Pexels

So, think about the people you know. Who seems to have a good understanding of what makes themselves and other people tick? These people have probably worked to develop their self-awareness (and are most likely aware that it’s an ongoing process). It can be really helpful to have one or more of these people on your side as you work to develop your self-awareness skills.

Developing your self-awareness skills

There are a number of ways that we can develop our self-awareness skills:

  • Focusing inward by releasing distractions
  • Developing mindfulness strategies and practices
  • Practising active listening to yourself and others
  • Writing about your experiences and interpretations
  • Seeking new perspectives

Focusing inward by releasing distractions

It’s really easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of our lives – chores that need to be done, work demands, maintaining social connections or binging on social media, news, TV or movies. But these activities can distract us from looking inward.

I recently noticed that my love of audiobooks was becoming a compulsion, as I raced from one book to the next. This was distracting me from tuning in to my energy levels and emotional state. I was feeling anxious and jumpy, and audiobooks were making this worse. So, I started listening to music, or not listening to anything at all. This gave me the mental space to check in and really notice how I was feeling, which helped with my anxiety.

The mind map below has some excellent ideas for releasing distractions. Treat it like a restaurant menu – select a few items to try today, and tomorrow, try some different options. After a while, you’ll have a set of favourite techniques that work for you. Employ them any time you want to release distractions and increase your awareness and focus.

Graphic 'How to focus in the age of distraction' with suggested activities aligned in groups

Image source: Learning Fundamentals

Practising active listening to yourself and others

So often in conversation, we find ourselves racing ahead, planning what we will say or how we can impress the other person. This leads to passive listening, where all we’re really listening out for is a gap into which we can leap with our (we think) brilliant pre-prepared statements.

Active listening, by contrast, involves being fully immersed in the conversation. You pay attention to what your conversation partner is saying, and their body language, tone of voice, and facial expression. You can also tune in to what they are not saying. Is there a topic they are avoiding? Are they being extremely positive or negative about something, without seeing it from another side?

Active listening means asking questions, and checking that you understand what your conversation partner is saying, thinking and feeling. You’ll say things like “So, if I understand correctly, you think that…” and “It sounds like that makes you feel…”

When you focus your attention understanding your conversation partner’s thoughts, feelings and experience, you’re demonstrating mindfulness. You are fully immersed in the present moment. And you’ll probably learn some really interesting and useful information along the way!

A man yelling into an old-style white telephone, with glasses sitting on the table in front of him
Helpful tip: if you're talking, or thinking about talking, you aren't listening Image credit: Pexels

Developing mindfulness strategies and practices

“Mindfulness” has become quite a buzzword in recent years – but don’t let that put you off. It’s about creating space in your life to fully focus on the present moment and notice what is going on for you and around you.

Most people are forgetful; they are not really there a lot of the time. Their mind is caught in their worries, their fears, their anger, and their regrets, and they are not mindful of being there... The opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness.

Many religious and spiritual traditions incorporate mindfulness – such as through prayer, meditation, and rituals. This doesn’t mean that mindfulness is only for the super-religious or super-spiritual among us. Rather, the widespread nature of such practices should remind us that many different cultures throughout history have discovered the importance of mindfulness.

You can do almost anything mindfully. Check out the image below for a range of ideas. The key quality of mindfulness is to really focus on what you are doing. Thoughts about other things will come up, but you don’t have to think them – try to let them float away in the same way they floated into your mind.

Graphic 'Mindfulness' with suggested activities to improve mindfulness

Image source: Mindful

Mindfulness isn’t the absence of thoughts and feelings, it’s about letting them arise and move on without becoming caught up in them or judging them.

Writing about your experiences and interpretations

Reflective practices are also common in spiritual and religious traditions, as well as forming an essential part of coaching, therapy and personal development processes. Reflection is a sort of mindfulness-after-the-fact, where you review a situation and explore your experience through a different lens.

Research indicates that writing your reflections down can be a powerful way to process them. This is because the act of writing:

A wooden desk. Sitting on top are a copy book with a fountain pen and ink, a glass jar holding other pens and pencils, a notebook, clock and satchel.
Journaling is a simple DIY reflective practice Image source: Pexels

  • allows your rational and emotional brain centres to connect to the experience you are writing about,
  • slows down your thoughts so that you have time to examine them, and
  • helps you make sense of what you experienced

While the idea of keeping a journal might sound burdensome, it doesn’t have to be. Keep it simple, and write as little or as much as you want. No one else will see what you write (unless you want them to!), so it’s a safe place to “let it all hang out”. The purpose of journaling is to get up close and personal with your own experiences, thoughts, emotions and feelings. And for some reason, it works better when you handwrite rather than type.

It is not sufficient to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting on this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost.

Use one or more of the prompts below, or make up your own. You don’t have to use the same prompt every day, although that can be useful for helping you identify themes as they come up.

Journal prompts:

  • answer three questions – what went well today? What could have gone better? What’s one thing I will do differently tomorrow?
  • spend 5 minutes writing about something that caught your attention today – include your reactions, how you felt about it while it was happening, what you are thinking and feeling at the time of writing, what story you created to explain the situation.
  • try the “My ‘I Can’ Journal” from The Contented Child (Facebook login required)
  • think of a conversation you had with someone today, and write about the conversation from their perspective – what were they thinking and feeling during the conversation? What did they notice about you and your responses in the conversation? What might they do differently next time?
  • or, take the same conversation, and write a different outcome. What would you say differently? How might that feel for you and your conversation partner? What could your conversation partner say differently? How might that make you and your conversation partner feel? How would the outcome of the conversation have changed?

Seeking new perspectives

It’s helpful to get an outside perspective regularly, particularly as it relates to our behaviour. Dr Simine Vazire, a Washington University Assistant Professor of Psychology, has conducted research showing that our friends and family often know things about us that we don’t know about ourselves. This is why feedback from others can help us with our blind-spots, allowing us to learn how to think and act differently.

Asking someone to give you feedback requires a huge amount of trust, and they should see it as a real privilege. You are allowed to be picky! You’ll want someone who is on your side, and able to balance being perceptive with being kind – they won’t let you off the hook, but they also won’t throw you to the sharks!

Two women seated at a table, talking
Talking things over with others can help us clarify our thinking and get a different perspective Image credit: Pexels

Giving and receiving feedback is a practice, an art, rather than an exact science. No two people give or receive feedback in exactly the same manner, but there are some basic guidelines that can help you along the way.

To increase the effectiveness of seeking and receiving feedback:

  • set ground rules and boundaries. If there is an area where you choose not to receive their feedback, make that clear from the start.
  • meet regularly. Feedback works best when it’s delivered face-to-face. If you can’t meet up physically, a video call is the next best option. This allows you to discuss the feedback in real-time, and ask questions to clarify what you’re hearing.
  • be aware of your emotions. It’s OK to have a strong emotional reaction to feedback. It can be tempting to shut feedback down or dismiss it entirely (which might reduce the likelihood of getting feedback in the future). Try to name what you’re feeling, and allow your emotions to rise and fall naturally. If you need a break, by all means, take one (make sure to explain this to your feedback partner). You can always come back to the feedback at a later time.
  • keep an open mind. Feedback always comes wrapped in the other person’s perspective, but we don’t always know where the nuggets of wisdom are hiding. So, consider each piece of feedback, looking for trends over time and across different situations.
  • remember that it is a gift. Just like at Christmas, we don’t usually know what’s inside the gift wrapping. It’s polite to thank the giver, regardless of whether we like the contents. Afterwards, we can decide whether to use the gift, shelve it to think about later, or let go because it was more of a reflection of the giver than of us. But if we find ourselves letting go of the same type of gift over and over, it might be time to consider that the gift really is meant for us!

Long story short...

Self-awareness can be learned, and having people who can support us in that process is valuable. It takes practice and is something that everyone can learn how to do. It is a life-long process – we don’t suddenly “arrive” at a place of perfect self-awareness. 

And every little bit of self-awareness we develop helps us navigate life better, enhancing our experiences and relationships with others. What could be more important for a leader than that? 


(All links open in a new tab)


2 thoughts on “Leadership toolbox: how to build self-awareness”

  1. Pingback: Leadership Toolbox: Psychological Safety ~ Potentiate Consulting

  2. Pingback: Leadership Toolbox: how to create psychological safety at work ~ Daria Williamson

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top