Self-Awareness Matters, A Lot

face as puzzle

Recently, after getting off a flight from a relaxing, stress-free vacation in sunny Mexico, I found myself in a slow-moving line at U.S. Customs.  With no attempt to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but hear a conversation taking place less than two feet behind me—apparently two businessmen discussing one of their colleagues—or more likely, one of their employees.

“That was just not funny in the least,” said the gray-haired and rather distinguished looking man who was clearly feeling outraged.  “This isn’t the first time, and taking that picture there in the airport was the final straw,” he went on.  “What was she thinking?  It’s time to get rid of her.”

The other fellow did not have the same sense of outrage, but neither did he seem to want to contradict the man who may have been his boss.  After a few minutes of listening and kind of grunting his assent, he tried changing the subject.  But then the outraged guy was right back at it.  “She’s entertaining, and she’s smart, but she just doesn’t know her limits.  That was not funny at all.  There have been too many incidents.  We’re going to have to do something.”

It was all I could do not to swing my head around and get a closer look at these two guys.  And I would have loved to know what it is that the smart, funny woman (I was picturing an attractive woman—perhaps Generation X or Y) had said or done to make this man angry enough to blast his feelings to any number of people dragging their suitcases through Customs.

In his anger—it was clear that the woman under discussion had somehow touched a hot button—he wasn’t aware or didn’t care who heard him as he planned his revenge out loud.  At that moment, I was wishing that I could call the woman, whoever she was, and warn her that her behavior had been perceived as threatening and that if she wanted to keep her job, she had better modify her words, actions, and attitude around her boss.

Then it occurred to me that both the man (whom I assume to be the boss) and the woman (whom I assume to be an employee) are suffering from the same problem—a lack of self-awareness.  Self-awareness is the foundational piece of Emotional Intelligence.  A lack of it can cause problems in other areas—managing one’s emotions, understanding what others are feeling, building satisfying relationships with others, and even having the resilience that is needed to cope with the inevitable changes and challenges that are part of life.  Self-awareness matters, a lot.

I don’t know the true and doubtless complicated story of the man in the Customs line, but in the story I  created about him after listening to his tirade for ten minutes or more, he is not self-aware.  He probably cannot find the words to describe how he is feeling in the moment.  He may have been surprised to learn that the employee—the woman who behaved so boldly—perceives him in a way that does not match his perception of himself.  He did not seem aware that the man listening to him on line was uncomfortable—not to mention those of us strangers who were standing in close proximity.

Such lack of self-awareness makes this distinguished gentleman appear much like a two-year old who has been thwarted in some way.  I imagine that he is an intelligent man, a business executive, perhaps the owner of his own business.  He may work very hard and even have taken his employees to a retreat at a resort in a sunny clime.  But I also imagine that he finds himself confused by an inability to relate to the people around him.  He may have similar difficulties relating to his family members.  I imagine that instead of trying to understand those he lives and works with, he falls back on his authority—as a father, as a boss—but that he is left feeling dissatisfied and even isolated.

And what about the woman who may have been fired on Monday?  I don’t know her real story either, but the story I’ve created about her tells me that she, too, lacks self-awareness.  And that lack is going to get her into trouble sooner or later.  She is smart, she is entertaining—so says the man who does not find her funny.  She may not be aware, however, of her own intentions and attitudes as she jokes or kids her colleagues.  She may also not be aware of how others perceive her, even as they are laughing.  She may feel that being smart—perhaps she is a graduate of Yale or Stanford or Duke—is enough, and that she doesn’t have to care about others’ emotions.

Okay, so these stories are fictions imagined from brief observations, but they might be true. Haven’t we all observed and known people who lack this self-awareness?  The good news is that self-awareness isn’t a genetically transmitted character trait;  self-awareness can be taught, and it can be learned.  From early childhood forward, we have been learning to be more self-aware, and many of us still have a few lessons to learn.  Self-awareness matters, a lot.

Barbara Kerr is the owner of Emotional Intelligence Insights and offers an interactive, online, on-demand course (anywhere, anytime at your convenience) to teach the concepts and skills of Emotional Intelligence and offer more than 50 steps you can take to increase your Emotional Intelligence skills.

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