READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Three tips to start improving your self-awareness right now
- Why you should turn every “why” question into a “what” question
- How journaling can help (or harm) your self-awareness
Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, a leadership coach, and the New York Times bestselling author of Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. She recently sat down with business thinker Whitney Johnson on the Disrupt Yourself podcast to discuss why others’ view of you may not match your view of yourself, and how we can bring those two perspectives into harmony.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.
Whitney: You have written a book called Insight, and it’s fascinating. Why did the topic of self-awareness become so interesting to you?
Tasha: My passion really ignited when I started coaching executives and CEOs. I kept seeing example after example of very brave, committed clients who wanted to see themselves clearly, who wanted to clarify who they were, what they stood for, and how the people that worked for them saw them. And in doing that, they became successful and confident from a financial perspective and an emotional one. After I saw this so many times, I was wondering, what do we know scientifically about self-awareness? We actually didn’t know very much from a scientific standpoint, so I had this moment of like, “Well, I’ll figure it out myself.”
Whitney: So what does it mean to be self-aware?
Tasha: Self-awareness is made up of two types of knowledge about ourselves. Number one is knowing who we are internally—internal self-awareness—and number two is knowing how other people see us—external self-awareness. But what’s really interesting is that those two types of self-knowledge—seeing yourself internally, knowing who you are and what you stand for, [versus] knowing how others see you on the outside—are totally different and completely independent. In fact, we found that people tend to have one that’s more developed than the other.
Whitney: So you can be really internally self-aware, but externally have a big blind spot, and you can also have a good sense of what people think of you and how they perceive you, but also have a big blind spot internally.
Tasha: Yes. And we see these archetypes—there’s the “introspecter,” somebody who has self-examination as a hobby. They love going to therapy, or they devour self-help books, or they really like to journal about themselves. But ultimately, they’re not spending nearly as much energy understanding how they’re coming across. That disconnect can hurt their relationships, their leadership effectiveness, and so on.
“95% of people believe that they’re self-aware, but only about 10 to 15% of us actually are.”
And then the other side of the spectrum is the “pleasers,” people who are so focused on how others see them that they don’t know what’s in their own best interest, or they lose sight of it in the quest to satisfy other people’s expectations.
What we’ve discovered in our research is that 95% of people believe that they’re self-aware, but only about 10 to 15% of us actually are. And that discovery ended up being one of the most powerful precursors of increasing my own self-awareness. The first step is to say, “Okay, I think I know myself pretty well, but what if I didn’t? What if I started to think about the things that could help me become a better person, a better leader, a better family member?” People who are self-aware tend to know seven general things about themselves: They know their passions, their aspirations, their patterns, their reactions, what they value, what environment they fit in, and the impacts they have on other people.
Whitney: You’ve said that journaling can actually be counterproductive to self-awareness if not done properly. Can you talk about how to journal in a way that is productive?
Tasha: Absolutely. For some people, journaling is a place to vent, to say, “I had a bad day today, and I’m very upset.” But the research has found that if we instead focus on rationally processing what happens to us, and then exploring our emotions—but not overly so—that’s when we get insight from journaling. It’s kind of like the Goldilocks thing—you don’t want too much of either being rational or emotional, and you don’t want too little. If you can balance those two things, that can be a prescription for success.
Another thing that we’ve discovered from other researchers is to not journal every day, because that can lead us down the road of overthinking or over-emotionalizing things. So [journaling is good for] something you want to think about or work through, [but you shouldn’t] put pressure on yourself to do it every day.
Let me give you an example: One of our interview subjects shared a situation where she was journaling about an event where she and a friend were having a conversation, and she made the friend cry—but she had absolutely no idea what she had done to make that happen. So in her journal entry, she was focusing on her perception of the situation, and how it made her feel. But then, she asked herself more of a rational question: “What must that situation have felt like for my friend?” By taking a different perspective and rationally exploring it, she was able to figure out what she had done to make the friend upset. That ended up being very helpful in going back to her friend and apologizing.
So that’s a good example of how we can and should [use journaling to] process things that happen, but in a focused way [that helps us] get outside our own perspective and see the situation more completely and holistically.
Whitney: So the initial way of journaling is just about internal awareness, but by having her reflect and think about, “Well, how was this other person experiencing this?”, she’s going to the external awareness. You put those two pieces together, and you start to be self-aware, and the journaling ends up being very productive.
Whitney: There’s a great passage in the book, and I would love if you would read the paragraph at the bottom of page 101.
Tasha: “‘Why’ questions draw us to our limitation; ‘what’ questions help us see our potential. ‘Why’ questions stir up negative emotions; ‘what’ questions keep us curious. ‘Why’ questions trap us in our past; ‘what’ questions help us create a better future. Making the transition from ‘why’ to ‘what’ can be the difference between victimhood and growth.”
Whitney: I love that.
Tasha: This was, in my mind, one of the most surprising discoveries we made: The people who spent the most time thinking about themselves were actually the least self-aware. And not only were they the least self-aware, they were also the most depressed, the most anxious, the least happy, the least satisfied with their jobs and relationships, and [felt the least] in control of their lives. This really threw us for a loop—I started questioning, “Is self-awareness even a good thing in the first place?”
But we discovered that self-reflection isn’t inherently bad—it’s just that when most of us do it, we’re making a huge mistake. When we went through hundreds and hundreds of pages of interviews with [very self-aware people,] we discovered that the word “why” appeared less than 150 times, and the word “what” appeared more than a thousand times. These self-awareness unicorns were almost completely taking “why” questions off the table.
Let me give you an example: There was one unicorn who got a brand new boss, and the two of them were butting heads. But instead of asking something like, “Why are we like oil and water?”—which would be a normal self-reflection question—he instead asked himself, “What can I do to show her I’m the best person for this job?” And there’s a profound difference between those two questions. “Why” questions tempt us to go into this spiral of self-loathing or overthinking—an emotional black hole. But “what” questions help us become insight-oriented and action-oriented. They help us move from victimhood to a sense of empowerment, to “I can do something about this.”
“The people who spent the most time thinking about themselves were actually the least self-aware.”
Whitney: If you were to have someone come to you and say, “This is my perception of myself,” and you say, “Actually, my perception of you is very different,” how do you open up that conversation?
Tasha: People who are highly self-aware are able to hold the views they have about themselves, and also be open to other ways of seeing themselves. There’s a great F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that’s something like, “The definition of true intelligence is to hold two opposing views in your mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
With a kind and compassionate but highly specific and candid approach, we can help people discover another way of seeing themselves. Don’t even say, “Can I give you some feedback?” Just say, “Do you mind if I offer an observation of something that I’ve seen?” The name of the game is presenting that data in a non-evaluative way, without creating defensiveness.
Whitney: When you say “non-evaluative,” what do you mean?
Tasha: So, let’s say you’re in a meeting with a peer, and you come away from the meeting and go, “Man, they were being really aggressive.” That’s an example of an evaluative comment, where you’re not really focusing on the behavior, you’re focusing on your interpretation, your label of that behavior. And what most people would do is say, “I must give this person feedback,” then go up to them and say, “You were being really aggressive in that meeting.” Lo and behold, they’re pissed off at you. The conversation doesn’t go well.
But try thinking about it as, “Okay, it’s my perception that that person was being aggressive, but what exactly did he do to create that perception?” You might say, “Well, they interrupted me three or four times, and they banged their fist on the table when they were making a point.” Those things are less evaluative and more behavioral—it just is what it is. And then it becomes a completely different conversation, where in the first instance you’re defending yourself—”I’m not aggressive”—but in the second instance you’re saying, “Oh, I did do that—I don’t know if I noticed. Thank you.”
Whitney: In addition to getting your book, what are one or two actionable things that people can do right now to become more self-aware?
Tasha: I’ll give you three. The first is if you’re curious about, “How self-aware am I really?” we put together the Insight Quiz. If you go to insight-quiz.com, there are 14 questions that you fill out—it takes five minutes—and then you send a survey to someone who knows you well, who answers questions on how they see you. Once the system has both of those data points, it will send you a report of your level of self-awareness, plus a couple of tips to improve both your internal and external self-awareness.
To improve your internal self-awareness, there’s a great tip that I use every day, and it’s called “the daily check-in.” It’s designed to help you think about how your day went, without overthinking it. So at the end of the day, whether you’re driving home from work, on the train, or getting ready for bed, ask yourself three questions: The first is, “What went well today?” Number two is, “What didn’t go as well today?” And number three is, “How can I be smarter tomorrow?” The whole exercise shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes, but the incremental insight you gain every day is pretty incredible.
And the external self-awareness tool will probably feel scary, but it can be one of the most positive, transformational self-awareness actions you can take. I call it “the dinner of truth.” This was developed by a communications professor named Josh Meisner, and what it entails is taking someone close to you—someone you want to improve your relationship with—out to dinner, and asking them a very simple question: “What do I do that is most annoying to you?” And then, you listen.
I’ve done this multiple times, and [the feedback I’ve received] has informed so many positive changes that I’ve made. The conversation is affirming because that person is brave enough to tell us the truth, and they usually give us something very actionable [to work on]. But we don’t have to do anything about it if we don’t want to—Marshall Goldsmith says, “Just because you get feedback, doesn’t mean that you have to be a slave to it. You get to decide what you do with that information.” But in my opinion, knowing is always better than not knowing, and that’s what the dinner of truth helps us do.
In the journey of self-awareness, we are all in this together. And in order to become dramatically more self-aware, we don’t have to wait for huge insights that completely change the way we see ourselves. If we aim for small, incremental improvement every day, the sum total of that effect can be really game-changing. And by having the courage to do that work, we’re all going to be better for it.