Dr. Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author. Her most recent book, INSIGHT, delves into the connection between our self-awareness—what she calls the meta-skill of the twenty-first century—and our performance and success, both in and out of the workplace. She sat down with Heleo’s Editorial Director, Panio Gianopoulos, for a Facebook live conversation about setting the record straight on what self-awareness really is and how to get it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Panio: Self-awareness is such a big topic and can be very vague. How do you specifically define it?
Tasha: As an organizational psychologist, I found that self-awareness was probably one of the most often discussed and yet the most poorly understood skill that is required to be successful at work, and life in general. So my research team and I spent an entire year reviewing almost a thousand empirical studies. After this exhaustive process, we came up with a relatively simple definition: Self-awareness is seeing yourself clearly, and knowing how other people see you.
The first part is internal self-awareness. I understand who I am. I know my passions, my values, the impact of my behavior on others. The second part is knowing how other people see me.
Those two things, internal self-awareness and external self-awareness, [we found] there was no relationship between them. Then you start thinking about all the people you know and you’re like,”Oh I have that really introspective friend who spends $10,000 a year on therapy and really thinks he’s in touch with himself, but his friends think he’s oblivious.”
Or the alternative is, “I know someone who cares so much about how other people see them that they forget to make choices that surface their own happiness and success.” What we found is the people that worked on both internal self-awareness and external self-awareness had happier, better, more successful lives.
“Self-awareness is seeing yourself clearly, and knowing how other people see you.”
Panio: I think there’s a strange paradox, because if I’m [truly] self-aware, then wouldn’t I express doubts about it? Perversely, if I think I’m totally self-aware, than I would be un-self-aware.
Tasha: There is an inherent paradox. In writing this book, one of the things that we did was study people who had made dramatic improvements in their level of self-awareness. These are people who started out as super delusional and became very self-aware, or even started just moderately un-self-aware and made improvements. One of the things that we found is, if you ask someone, “Are you self-aware?” the most delusional people tend to say, “Yes, I’m a ten out of ten.”
But if you start to drill down, and [give statements like] “I understand what I find to be most important in my life,” or “I have an appreciation of the environment that helps me thrive the most,” those are less value judgments, and more statements of [personal clarity.]
Panio: Many people think introspection is the key to self-awareness. So you go off, meditate for hours and hours, and you find the truth about yourself internally. It’s a pure quest. Apparently, that’s totally wrong and introspection is absolutely useless.
Tasha: I’m going to disagree with some of the premise of that question, but there is a lot to it that frankly I found surprising. If you reflect a lot, you should know yourself. What we found was the people who reported, “Every single hour of every single day I reflect on who I truly am and what makes me tick,” tended to be more anxious, more depressed, and less happy with their lives. So we stepped back and thought, maybe the process of self-reflection isn’t always related to the product, which is that insight, that intuitive understanding.
[For example,] one thing we found is the traditional question of asking “why?” is the cornerstone of introspection for people. They say, “I just got in a fight with my spouse; why is my relationship this bad?” Or, “Why do I keep making these choices?”
When people do that, not only does it suck you down a spiral of negative and self-critical thinking, it actually doesn’t clarify anything. There’s a lot to it, but the essence of it is that we think we’ve unearthed the answers. You might say, “Well, I’m fighting with my husband because of my unresolved issues being abandoned as a child.” That may or may not be the reason. For all I know, I could have been cranky that day because I didn’t sleep well. So that’s one example of where we think we found the answer, because it seems right, but it might not be right at all.
Even if it were right, it doesn’t do anything to help us. So, in that context instead of saying, “Why am I in this relationship?” Or, “Why do I keep picking fights” I might say, “What can I do in the future to avoid this?” Or, “What do I want from this relationship, so that it can be healthier?” Or, “What am I going to do next time this happens so I can defuse the fight?”
Panio: It’s more forward-looking and more action-oriented. It’s kind of like that Buddhist saying, it goes something like, “If you’re shot with a poisoned arrow, don’t obsess over who just shot you [before removing it], because it doesn’t help you.”
So how do you do that? It seems like that would take some wisdom, right? If our default is just to look into ourselves, and the alternative is to go to a therapist to help us look into ourselves, this is the third path, which I don’t know that many of us are experienced with.
Tasha: That’s a really good way of looking at it. One path is blissful ignorance. One path is searching for that one inner truth, and then the third path, [which] highly self-aware people [follow is], “Okay, I’m probably not as self-aware as I think I am. Even if I am, I need to start questioning some of those assumptions about myself.” So if I have a particularly bad day, asking, “What really happened today? What did I contribute to that?” Or if I had a great day, “What did I do especially well today?”
What I love about the third path is that it’s incremental. It’s saying, “Every single day, if I can get one or two small insights, over time that’s going to build into a lot of improvement in my self-awareness.” There’s something really accessible about that. We don’t have to wait for the lightning bolt.
Panio: And that does seem to track with almost every other system of change and improvement. Big drastic changes don’t stick, whether it’s dietary or exercise or behavioral.
You mention feedback at length in [Insight]. Everyone talks about how feedback is a gift, but it’s hard to get good feedback, [especially] when it’s a personal relationship. How do you get feedback, say from your spouse, without just getting in a fight? Because that’s not always the feedback you want.
“There are two pieces to getting great feedback. The first is whom you choose and the second is how you engage in that conversation.”
Tasha: There are two pieces to getting great feedback. The first is whom you choose and the second is how you engage in that conversation.
There’s two elements that you want to follow to choose [the right person.] One, they want you to be successful. They need to love you, appreciate you; if they’re your colleague, they support you. Then two, they need to be able to tell you the truth, even if the truth is hard. I call these [people] loving critics. The highly self-aware people [we studied] were very picky about who they asked for feedback from.
Panio: Really? I’d think it would be democratic: “Here’s a ballot box, throw your comments in and tell me what you think.”
Tasha: It was surprising to me, but when we got into it, it made sense. Not all feedback is helpful, and not all feedback is well-intentioned.
The second [piece to great feedback] is how to have that conversation. There’s so much richness in that. One thing I talk about in the book is called “The Dinner of Truth,” and that’s sort of a microcosm of this question.
Panio: When I first heard the phrase “Dinner of Truth” it horrified me.
Tasha: As it should.
Panio: I immediately had an image of that Goya painting of Saturn devouring his son. It sounds like you’re going to lay yourself down and just get destroyed by your family.
Tasha: Luckily, nine times out of ten, that is not the case. But what you’re saying is a real fear for a lot of people. Some of my best friends were early takers of the [Insight] quiz and they said things like, “I really want to help you pilot it, but I’m scared to know the answer.” I think part of it is just accepting that, and saying, “Listen, this is as scary as maybe I imagined. Even if it’s not the worst case scenario, it’s going to make me slightly uncomfortable and it’s absolutely worth it.”
In the Dinner of Truth, what you’re doing is asking someone who loves you, “What do I do that annoys you most?” If they say, “Oh, I just don’t feel comfortable,” then say, “The reason I’m doing this is not to make you feel uncomfortable, it’s to check my perception against yours.”
This is an exercise that was developed by a communications professor named Josh Meisner. He’s used it with literally thousands of his students in improving their self-awareness. He says to ask the question and then don’t say anything else—[though you can] ask questions to clarify.
Panio: Are you supposed to give them a heads up that you’re going to ask them, or do you just spring it on them?
Tasha: You [have to] think about the person. I would put it on the introversion/extroversion spectrum. Most extroverts are okay thinking out loud. They might not be particularly horrified by having that question sprung on them. But people who are introverted, myself included, tend to like to reflect on things individually before they have these types of conversations. I know if I ask my husband, who’s an off-the-charts extrovert, he wouldn’t need any warning. But it might be courteous to say, “Hey, I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight, but I want to give you a heads up that I’d like to get some feedback from you.” They’d say, “Well, what do you want to hear?” “I’m wondering if you could think about anything I’m doing that is, in my case, making me not the best wife I could be?” Then you get to the dinner and you lay the question on them.
It’s scary in the moment, but every single time I learned something that helped me strengthen my relationship with that person and improve my own self-awareness. It’s tough, but it’s worth it.
Panio: Is there an implicit reciprocity where then the other person is supposed to do it?
Tasha: I think most people, especially if they are self-improvement oriented, might punt it back at you, so it’s probably a good idea to think about it.
“That hunger for improvement and the sustained importance of it is what these really highly self-aware people taught me.”
Panio: I love the idea, and I hate to go on record and say I’d like to try it, but I do want to try it.
For me, there’s this strange, philosophical tension [behind all of] these books and research about the science behind human behavior. I feel a tension sometimes between what feels like an everlasting desire to change and improve, and the desire to accept yourself. So I wonder, is there a peak point of self-improvement? Where suddenly it’s, “Okay, the rest I’m just going to accept. This is just the way I am and provided it’s not driving everyone around me crazy, I’m good. I’ve reached a point of equilibrium.”
Tasha: How do you square the need to accept yourself for who you are with the drive to improve?
Panio: Right. Is improvement something that you do your entire life? You’re 70, 80, 90, and you’re still asking your friend, “What do I do that annoys you?” Or is there a point where you say, “Okay, I ironed out all the stuff, and every once in a while I’ll revisit it, but I’ve hit a point where it works.”
Tasha: So let me tell you a personal story to answer that question. Ironically, or maybe not, I have gotten feedback that in some professional situations I tend to be impersonal. I’ll say, “Research says…” or I’ll pull out some numbers, or talk about studies instead of talking about myself. Eventually I started hearing it from enough people that I thought, okay there’s something here. I’ve got to figure this out. While I think that the words “research says” are the two sexiest words of all time, not everyone feels that way. I’m a perfectionist, so I never want people to see anything imperfect about me, and I’m an introvert. I’ve been working on this for my whole career.
I actually thought recently, “I’m good. I nailed this.” I’m never totally done, but I think I put in the work and I’m reaping the rewards. So I was doing an interview last week and the host asked me a question and I answered it. He said, “I’m going to stop you right there. I’m wondering if you could not be Tasha the author, or Tasha the researcher, but just be Tasha the person.”
I thought, “Oh, man! I’m not done.”
I find that to be the most exciting part of all this, actually, that you can’t wake up one day and say, “Well, that does it. I’m self-aware. I can stop now.” That hunger for improvement and the sustained importance of it is what these really highly self-aware people taught me.