How to increase our emotional self-awareness

By Elisabeth Goodman, 29th September 2018

Emotional self-awareness is at the root of emotional intelligence, and it is a skill.  I am increasingly realising, as I work with managers and individual team members, that emotional self-awareness is a skill in which people have varying levels of proficiency.

I’ve gone back to the very first of Daniel Goleman et al’s “Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence” to learn more about what emotional self-awareness is, why it’s important, and how to go about developing it. [See the notes at the end for links to my blogs on some of the other booklets.]

Emotional self-awareness_Goleman et al
1. Emotional Self-Awareness in Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.  Daniel Goleman et al, Key Step Media, 2017

What is emotional self-awareness?

Daniel Goleman defines emotional self-awareness on pages 5 and 34 of the booklet as:

“the ability to understand your own emotions and their effects on your performance.  You know what you are feeling and why – and how it helps or hurts what you are trying to do.  You sense how others see you and so align your self-image with a larger reality.  You have an accurate sense of your strengths and limitations, which gives you a realistic self-confidence.  It also gives you clarity on your values and sense of purpose, so you can be more decisive when you set a course of action.  As a leader, you can be candid and authentic, speaking with conviction about your vision.”

Why is emotional self-awareness so important?

As Goleman explains, if our self-awareness is strong, it makes us better equipped for the three other core components of emotional intelligence: self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

As with so many aspects of emotional intelligence, being self-aware helps us to get better results out of the situations that we find ourselves in.  Because we experience emotions both physically and intellectually, being more in touch with our emotions will have beneficial effects on our mental health, our physical health, and our intellect. And we will interact more effectively with others.

For leaders in a business environment, the positive effects will spread to our colleagues, teams, and to the organisation as a whole.  Goleman quotes results from the Korn Ferry Hay Group that quantify the benefits:

  • Where leaders had multiple strengths in emotional self-awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance
  • Where leaders were low in emotional self-awareness, they created negative climates 78% of the time

How can we improve our emotional self-awareness?

Daniel Goleman and his co-authors have three or four suggestions for us.

  1. Interoception. The first way to improve our emotional self-awareness (according to Richard Davidson) is to tune in to what is happening in our bodies: our internal signals.  The technical term for this is “interoception”.  Basically, our heart rate, our muscle tension and our breathing are all affected by our emotions – and our awareness of this is controlled by the part of the brain called the insula.  Apparently, MRI scans can pick up increased activity in the insula when we are actively interrogating how our body feels.  So, we can learn to pay more attention to what is going on in our bodies.
  2. Reflection.  We can also increase our emotional self-awareness by taking the time to think about how we are feeling.  How this is connected to whatever might be going on.  How we’ve reacted to a particular situation.  And how we could behave differently.  Keeping a daily journal is one way to do do this.
  3. 360 degree feedback.  This is a popular tool for management and leadership development.  We can use it to get feedback on how others perceive us: our strengths and our opportunities for development.  And we can compare that feedback to our self-perception, and discover gaps or mis-matches between the two.
  4. On-going feedback.  We can also ask supportive colleagues to alert us to situations where it might be helpful for us to be more aware of how we and others are feeling, and where our behaviour may be more or less helpful to others.  George Kohlrieser suggests that we have colleagues help us, or that we have a mentor or a coach to support us in this way.

A couple of additional tips

  1. Team self-assessment.  Vanessa Druskat writes a chapter in each of the series’ booklets about the topic’s relevance to teams.  Here she reminds us that teams can also demonstrate emotional self-awareness by taking the time to actively monitor how they are doing, from an emotional and relationship perspective.  Vanessa Druskat also suggests that it takes a courageous team leader to do this: to not worry about what the findings might indicate about their effect on the team, or about bringing any conflicts into the open.
  2. Checking-in as a regular practice.  Daniel Goleman tells an effective anecdote in the booklet’s conclusion about a nurse who takes a moment, before visiting each of her patients, to tune into her feelings, and to remind herself to give her full attention to the next patient.  We could do the same before we initiate any conversation at work with direct reports, colleagues, managers, customers or suppliers!
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My blogs on other booklets in the series:

About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.