According to Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, self-awareness is the keystone of emotional intelligence. That’s because before we are able to make changes in ourselves, we need to know where we are in the present time. In order to manage our emotions in a manner that benefits us, we need to first have a solid grasp of why we feel the way we do and how that determines the decisions we make and actions we take.
The Dalai Lama summed it up when he said, “To have greater self-awareness or understanding means to have a better grasp of reality.” While self-awareness is at the root of emotional intelligence, acquiring it is a lifelong journey. Emotionally intelligent leaders continue to learn about themselves as they grow and develop their self-awareness throughout their lifetime.
Here are seven actions leaders can take to develop their self-awareness:
Write down your emotions
While it is difficult to remember what emotions you went through that day, writing them down is helpful. Include what you remember feeling, the people you were with, what happened to cause those feelings, as well as how they made you feel physically. You can do this both at work and in other areas of your life. This helps you become more aware of patterns that you consciously may not be aware of at the time they occur.
Chris Kneeland, CEO of advisory firm Cult Collective, says that he always used to say “I think . . . ” instead of “I feel . . . .” “Just giving myself permission to acknowledge my emotions and accept that feelings are as important as knowledge was a big step for me,” says Kneeland. Set something up that will remind you to do this on a daily basis.
Become aware of what triggers you and why
We are constantly being triggered, but often it goes under our radar. Someone or something we have a strong reaction to will remind us of past persons or events. This can go as far back as childhood. A good exercise when we feel a strong reaction to a person or situation is to try to go back as far as we can and try to remember the first time we felt that way.
Becoming aware of our triggers helps us better manage our emotions. Whenever you are triggered, examine your “self-talk”—that little voice in your head that programs your brain, recommends Rick Brandon, author of Straight Talk: Influence Skills for Collaboration and Commitment. If your self-talk consists of upsetting, counterproductive internal statements about your job, company, or any performance challenge, it can trigger “fight” feelings, like upset and anger, or “flight” feelings, like intimidation or anxiety.
Avoid making judgements about emotions
We can feel guilty for having what we consider to be “bad” emotions. However, emotions are neither good nor bad; they are just giving us information. It’s what we do with them that matters. It’s better to simply try to understand what emotions are telling us without making any judgment about them.
Feel the discomfort and do it anyway
It may be difficult to look at our emotions and we may feel discomfort on many levels. If this happens, recognize that this kind of work is not easy. However, remind yourself that it’s important work—and give yourself credit for forging ahead and strive to be compassionate with yourself.
Check how you show up physically
How do you show up physically when you are having strong emotions? Have a look in the mirror and see if you can spot the emotions you are going through in your face and body posture. Is there a connection between how you dress and how you’re feeling? The next time you’re watching people, try to determine what emotions those people are experiencing.
Increase your feelings vocabulary
Even though we have many emotions and various levels, we usually are conscious of only a few. Tools like Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions can help us expand our awareness. Recognizing an emotion and saying it out loud brings it clearly into our consciousness and helps us manage that emotion more effectively.
Spend time in reflection
As you continue to work with your emotions and overcome recognizing and managing them, try to look at yourself as a detached observer. Imagine you are looking at yourself from outside of yourself and witnessing your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Notice how you respond to events. Ask yourself why you responded this way. Would you have liked to respond differently? Realizing that you have the ability to choose your response at any time is a powerful realization in your emotional growth process.