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Three ways to be more self-aware at work

The more self-aware you are, the more effective you can be.

Three ways to be more self-aware at work
[Photo: Vince Fleming]

We like to think of the workplace as strictly for business. Though most CEOs wouldn’t admit it, companies can sometimes feel like playgrounds, with emotion dictating the way employees interact with colleagues, managers, and clients.

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Emotions come in when we get stressed about a deadline, and when we get excited about an area we’re passionate about. They play a part when we bond with our team, and when we feel someone has broken our trust.

We all have triggers: a phrase, an assumption, or a behavior that makes us absolutely crazy. Generally, triggers tap deep into our core, revealing our insecurities and frustrations all at once. The reality is that we’re all human, which means we’re all feeling emotions at work–at least until the robots arrive.

It’s good to feel a broad spectrum of emotions, even the uncomfortable ones. But this can get in the way of work. So if the workday is filled with emotions but no one really talks about them, how do we strike a balance and continue to get the job done?

The key is building self-awareness of what sets you off. Here are three steps to take to build self-awareness of how you’re feeling, and what’s tapping those emotions on the job.

Know what triggers you

What makes you irrationally defensive? What gets you out of your rational thinking brain and into your gut and heart? It’s important to understand what triggers an emotional response so that you can be intentional about how you want to respond.

For me, hearing gendered feedback (critical subjective feedback that relies on vague, negative words typically reserved to describe women, such as “abrasive,” “too strong,” or “emotional”) really gets my goat.
For others, it’s hearing they’ve been passed up for a promotion, or a phrase from their boss that suggests they don’t trust them to get the job done. Often, such a slight is unintentional, but the outcome is the same. We let our emotional response run the show.

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Related: Five emotionally intelligent habits for handling work frustrations


To tackle this head on, think back to your most tense moments at work: What made your blood boil? When have you regretted how you’ve behaved or let emotions get the best of you? Was it something someone did or said? Call upon the feeling and see if you can unpack its root cause.

Slow down to choose your response

If you can begin to recognize your triggers, you can choose your response to them, as opposed to simply reacting. To do this, you need to slow your system down. Take deep breaths, remind yourself this is not a true fight-or-flight scenario, and break eye contact if you need to. Go for a walk if you can, and if you can’t, then look out the window. Even if you’re in the middle of a meeting, there’s no harm in taking a quick bathroom break to calm yourself down.

Communicate what’s happening to others

Remember my trigger of hearing potentially gendered feedback? When I hear it, I can feel steam coming out of my ears. I get frustrated by what feels to me to be lazy language, and I get angry on behalf of all the women in the workplace who’ve ever had to deal with it. Especially early in my career, it was really hard for me to hear feedback of this kind. My pulse would quicken, my inner monologue would race, and I couldn’t hear anything the feedback giver was saying anymore.


Related: Emotionally intelligent ways to express these five feelings at work


Now that I know this about myself, I can recognize it when it happens and then choose how I want to respond. This doesn’t mean that these words no longer affect me; they still make my pulse quicken, and I still dislike gendered feedback with the fire of 1,000 suns. But now I can be honest about what’s happening and clue the other person in to my experience so they’re not surprised by my response.

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For me, that means pausing and saying, “That language is actually triggering to me and I’m afraid it’s taking me somewhere else. Can we take a break and come back to this? I want our discussion to be productive, and I’m not able to do that at the moment. Mind if we return to this tomorrow, when I’ve had a little more time to process?”

With practice, you’ll be able to recognize your triggers, begin to take ownership of them, and have a constructive conversation that allows you to get your work done effectively and professionally.

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About the author

Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., Newsweek, and HuffPost. She currently manages a team of researchers at Pinterest, in addition to leading a company-wide mentorship program

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