Ki Moments Blog

Support for life’s “key” moments.

September 24, 2019

Self-Awareness Primer: What It Is. How to Get It.

Self-Awareness Primer: What It Is. How to Get It.

Occasionally I enjoy sharing posts by other writers--personal favorites by fellow coaches and leadership consultants like Joe Dunn, the author of today's post on self-awareness.

Self-Awareness Primer: What It Is. How to Get It.

by Joe Dunn

We know it when we see it. We say “she’s highly self-aware,” and we mean it as a compliment. We mean that person is able to take criticism, correct her mistakes and learn as she goes. We can work with that person, tell her what we think and expect a reasonable response.

Being self-aware is a strength. It’s a foundation for authenticity, for communication, for decision and for leadership. It’s also something that can be simply defined, learned and practiced.

What It Is – A Practical Definition

Here’s a short, practical definition of self-awareness. When you are self-aware, you are able to bring your attention to:

  • your thoughts
  • your emotions
  • your body

That’s it. The whole of it. I mean, I could spin it out to book length (god knows, I wouldn’t be the first one), but really, that’s it.

Why It’s Important – Get Control of The Bus

Let’s say you are an engineering lead, and you are having a conversation with a product manager about a new feature. The conversation has become an argument. She wants it in the next release. You think it’s a waste of resources. You are both now deep into a confrontation.

Without self-awareness, it’s likely that you’ll allow your emotion to take over your side of the conversation. Maybe you’ll yell. Maybe you’ll freeze and sulk. 

Whatever your response, it will be conditioned by deeply entrenched patterns of behavior you have developed from every relationship you’ve ever had going back to your parents. And it won’t help you or the product manager resolve the issue.

You will be reacting unconsciously. If the conversation is a bus, you are not a driver, co-driver or navigator. You are in the back seats, feeling uncomfortable, vaguely aware that the bus is going too fast, in the wrong direction and is in danger of hitting something.

Self-awareness allows you to grab the wheel, maybe put your foot on the brake a bit, and slow the bus down.

If your self-awareness was turned on, you might be able to see:

  • your thoughts: “she’s an idiot,” “I’m always getting shot down,” “this company doesn’t value engineering judgment.” These thoughts are not necessarily true, or even close to true. They are just there— you’re just thinking them, and they are not helping.
  • your emotions: frustration, with some fear going towards anger. Is this useful? No. In fact it’s going to make things worse. But you have no control. You not even fully aware that it’s happening.
  • your body: your chest is tight, face is clenched, arms are crossed hard. You think you are being intense and controlled. To your partner in the conversation, you look ready for a fight. A physical fight. It’s not helping your position.

If you could see those states, which are, in fact, your “self,” then you could perhaps start to take a conscious, careful and eventually wise course of action.

How To Get It

Pay attention. That’s the whole of how to become self-aware.

Our attention is one of our super-powers as humans. The problems, people and relationships we apply our attention to become more deeply understood, more intensely ours, more tractable. We become conscious of the realities of the object of our attention, and having become conscious, can apply that other wonder of our human brain — our logic, our ability to reason.

Paying attention is an act of discipline and will. Like any other skill it needs practice and focus. Developing self-awareness is a matter of learning to direct our attention, repeatedly and carefully, to our thoughts, our emotions and our body.

How To Pay Attention

Answer: learn mindfulness meditation. It’s that direct. Mindfulness meditation is a multi-thousand year old discipline of directing and holding the attention so we see how our thoughts, emotions and bodily states ebb and flow, endlessly changing.

Yes, it helps make you calmer. But that’s not the point. It may make you more efficient, but that’s not the point. It will help you with decisions — not the point, either. The point is to develop the ability to focus a conscious, unwavering beam of attention on the reality of the present moment.

So find an app. Do an online course. Start with a very short “Dummies” article (it’s here). Go to a retreat. Establish a practice. Watch your thoughts, your emotions, your reactions to bodily states. Do it every day. Start with five minutes. Get up to twenty. Then thirty. Then do it every day for the rest of your life.

That’s how you develop self-awareness.

Going Deeper

As you develop self-awareness of your thoughts, emotions and body over time, you will start to notice something interesting: patterns.

You will notice that you react to people and situations in predictable ways. But you react so fast, so incredibly fast, that until you started becoming self-aware you didn’t even know you were doing it.

Your thoughts, emotions and body will lock into a response before you have time to think — absolutely literally, the “lock” will occur before any awareness of the situation reaches your rational brain.

Some of these are trivial: you like to stand up when you drink tea. Or you always slouch, just a little, when your boss starts a meeting (something to do with your Mom? a little rebellion? I have no idea — your call). Some of these are more interesting: it took me about ten years in the tech business to realize that I tended to work for short, intense male founders with dark hair and huge ideas that they didn’t know how to realize. They would pontificate, and I would manage the work so it got done. Yes, I was rescuing my Dad, over and over.

True story!

The more you see your patterns, the more you are free of them and the more you can approach your life consciously, as yourself.

Yeah, But I Don’t Have Time.

Well you do, but I hear you, we live in fast times.

So here’s a short-cut to get you a little part of the way there. Next time you’re starting to get into a stressful situation (late night coding gone wrong, boss looking at you the wrong way in a meeting, starting to get frustrated in a conversation), do the following:

  • stop. For the love of god, stop. Stop talking, walking, coding, writing, just stop.
  • breathe. Yeah, but like this: sit up straight, with your head reaching for the ceiling. Take a big, big breath — three seconds in. Roll your shoulders up and back, and exhale.
  • breathe again. No, not like that, I mean slowly — three seconds in etc., etc.
  • check what you’re thinking. Check if it’s true (“I’m an idiot” — true? not at all true? a bit true? check it out — the truth will set you free).
  • check what your body feels like — where is the tension? gone yet? breath some more.

That’ll get you going.

Meanwhile, yeah, find a mindfulness practice. It works.


 Joe Dunn is an executive coach, working with executives and technical Joe-Dunnleaders in high growth companies in San Francisco. If you like this post, you might want to subscribe to Joe's weeky blog, where he curates articles on tech management, communication, software productivity, and other best practices in tech leadership.


Bus photo courtesy of AEMoreira042281, wikimedia commons

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