Caroline Webb is the CEO of Sevenshift, author of How to Have a Good Day, and a former partner at McKinsey & Company whose work focuses on helping professionals use lessons from behavioral economics to be happier, healthier, and less stressed by the demands of a busy life. Through Smart Thinkers at Pan Macmillan, she recently joined organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author of Insight, Dr. Tasha Eurich for a conversation on gaining 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.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Tasha: In researching the topic of self-awareness, one of the things we had to begin with was simply to define what it is. It’s like so many things. The words “communication” and “trust” mean something different to everyone. It took us almost an entire year of synthesizing over 800 studies [to get to a definition.]
“Self-awareness” essentially has two parts: internal self-awareness is understanding our values, our passions, our aspirations, our personality. And then external self-awareness is knowing how other people see us.
What we found in our research is that most people are okay in one, but have a significant amount of room to improve in the other.
Caroline: Right, and we need both of them.
Tasha: We need both to be successful. Think about the person who spends thousands of dollars a year on therapy and thinks they’re profoundly in touch with themselves, and then you talk to their friends and they say, “Oh, this person is insensitive” or “I just can’t stand to be around them.” That’s an example of someone with high internal self-awareness and low external self-awareness. You really do have to have both.
Caroline: Someone with high external self-awareness is very concerned with what others think of them, but not necessarily true to anything that is really central to themselves. In internal self-awareness, you mentioned values. Could you say a bit more about that?
Tasha: Values are the essential foundation for our entire level of self-awareness—they’re the “DNA” that makes us who we are. If somebody doesn’t understand their values, that frame with which to view the world, how can they know what they want to accomplish in life or understand the impact they have on other people?
“It’s not about just clarifying your values, but asking, how are you living your values?”
Ben Franklin is a wonderful example of someone who had a series of failures in his early 20s. He lost a business. He fathered an illegitimate son. And then, he decided that he had 13 values that he wanted to live his life by. Ever the great student of self-awareness, he had a little notebook and would list each value and every day, he would assess himself on how well he embodied that value.
I think that’s inspiring. It’s not about just clarifying your values, but asking, how are you living your values?
Caroline: All the research suggests that if you do that, then you’re going to have all sorts of ancillary benefits like boosts in confidence and performance. Looking at people who take just a moment or two before going to a meeting or presentation to connect with their values, by writing a few sentences about what matters to them, they go into the conversation or the presentation and come across as more of a leader. They’re perceived to be more compelling in their communication.
It just takes a few seconds, but you have to do the work beforehand to really think about your values. If you’ve done the personal reflection beforehand, it’s much easier in the moment to reconnect.
You talk about whether people fit with their environment. I’m often working with clients who really don’t fit with their environment and ultimately, they might need to make a career change, but I’m helping them think about how to be at their best in the construct that they’re in. Often, so much of it is getting them to go back to their own sense of what’s important, so that they can feel good about their choices and maybe even create a sort of subculture around their values.
Tasha: When we’re not in a place where we fit, the only thing we notice is how much energy it’s taking away from us. When we’re in a place where it’s aligned with our values, and we can express our authentic self, it adds energy, instead of taking it away.
We’ve been talking about the topic of self-awareness and those small hacks that we can make in our life to be more productive and happy and successful. I thought it would be interesting for us to talk about the topic of rumination.
Rumination, the way I define it, is unproductive levels of self-analysis or self-reflection usually tinged with a sense of self-judgment, self-consciousness, or self-loathing. In the book, I talk about how that can mask itself as productive self-reflection. So if I blow a meeting or do a terrible job presenting to a client, why not spend the next six weeks thinking obsessively about what went wrong, so I can do better next time?
It sounds so silly when you put it that way but many people who have good intentions of being self-aware tend to go overboard and they miss that sense of self-acceptance and gentleness that we have to look at ourselves with.
I’m curious what hacks that you found can help break that cycle.
Caroline: We both write about affect labeling, [the importance of] labeling your emotions quite crisply. I like approaching this [through] expressive writing. “I feel worried about that meeting because I think that I spoke too much or used the wrong slides or they must have thought that I was an idiot when my computer broke…” You write it down, label the emotion, label why you think you feel that way. Then you set it aside. The setting aside is important as the actual expression itself.
Research shows that when you adopt a distance perspective, the level of alert in our brains drops and that makes it easier for us to think clearly about whatever it is that’s gone wrong.
For me, having a go-to distancing question like, “What would I think about this in a year?” is super grounding. It really helps cut the rumination. What about you?
Tasha: One thing I’ve learned from [the] very highly self aware people that I studied was they distance themselves, sometimes by saying, “Do other people around me care about my mistake as much as I do?” because we think we’re the center of our own world, but we’re not the center of everyone else’s. That can be such a powerful way of saying, “Wait a minute, I’m agonizing over this but I bet nobody thought about it again after the meeting was over.”
Caroline: Mindfulness is one of the ways that we can become more self aware, too. What’s your take on how to build it into everyday life?
Tasha: My view on mindfulness has evolved. As a scientist, at first I feared that it was a little bit “woo woo.” But the more I learned, the more I saw the powerful and profound benefits of focusing on the present moment, our reactions, our thoughts, our emotions.
One of the things that I wanted to investigate was what I call “mindfulness without the mantras.” There are a lot of fellow type-A people that can’t even find five minutes in their day. One tool I find useful is called comparing and contrasting. Which is noticing how you feel at a specific moment, good or bad, and asking yourself what patterns you’ve seen in similar moments or even what differences you’ve seen.
For example, [say] I come to work one day and I’m just miserable. I’m in the worst mood. I hate my job. I might step back and say, “Okay, what have I experienced in the recent weeks where I’ve felt similarly?” And maybe I realize that every time I have to get up and do a presentation in front of my team, I feel that sense of deep regret and self-loathing. To look at that pattern, that’s a way for me to have a perspective on what it is about my environment that’s causing this, so that the next time I make that presentation, I can be aware of it in the moment and have a little bit more control.
You talk about this idea of micro-moments of mindfulness. Tell me more about that.
Caroline: One of the things that I’ve seen be very powerful with my clients is learning to simply pause and direct your attention to some single point of focus—which is essentially mindfulness. And to not set the bar too high in deciding what that point of focus should be. So rather than focusing on your breath for 20 minutes, perhaps focus on your breath for 10 breaths and count as you breathe in and breathe out. Maybe not even 10 breaths, maybe just three, in the middle of a meeting.
I had one woman that I was working with, who was often facing a lot of conflict and aggression directed towards her. She would pick up her pen and she would turn it around three times. It just gave her that point of stillness that allowed her mind to quiet down. It allowed her to think more clearly about what to say and do next.
I myself like mindful walking, where I really pay attention to the way that my feet feel as I hit the ground. That helped me when it felt difficult to build a regular mindfulness habit. And it’s probably helped my self-awareness, too.
“So rather than focusing on your breath for 20 minutes, perhaps focus on your breath for 10 breaths and count as you breathe in and breathe out. Maybe not even 10 breaths, maybe just three, in the middle of a meeting.”
Tasha: I know the concept of soliciting feedback is also so important in the work that [we] do. I talk about it in the sense of being able to check your self perceptions against how other people see you. Not necessarily that you’re right and they’re wrong or they’re right and you’re wrong, but it’s the process of reconciling and really digging in to that feedback.
One of the things that I hear a lot is, “I know I should be asking for more feedback—but I don’t know how, or I’m afraid.” Let’s talk about a couple of tips to help people get feedback and keep their mojo and their relationship with the person giving them feedback.
Caroline: It’s really hard not to go on the defensive even when you’re receiving feedback that you’ve asked for. It’s challenging to hear something [that] gets at your identity or your competence, things that are really important to our sense of self-worth.
When people’s brains go on the defensive, it’s because they perceive some threat to their self-worth or social standing, and we know that there’s less activity in their prefrontal cortex. What that means is that if you’re defensive you are dumber as you’re listening to this feedback, you’re not hearing it as clearly. You’re not going to be as expansive and thoughtful about what to do with it.
That’s why so often we give someone feedback and then they do nothing with it. We think, “Were they in the conversation? Did they hear what I had to say?” Chances are, in some ways, they didn’t.
[As for tips,] first, we don’t really give enough positive feedback. You might say well, most people have a bias to thinking that they’re amazing, the Dunning–Kruger effect [where] everybody thinks that they’re better than average. Maybe you don’t need that positive feedback. Actually, from day to day, most of us are not getting that much affirmation for the things that we do well. There’s a lot to learn from knowing what’s gone well and what we can learn from that.
[Second]: when you’re giving feedback, be as specific and compelling about the positive stuff as you are about the negative stuff. So quite often people would say, “You’re great! You’re great! You did great, now here are five things you should do differently.” And of course, what people remember is the five things because they’re the specifics.
Tasha: There’s also the question of who we ask for feedback. In my research on people who made dramatic transformations in their level of self-awareness, I was expecting to hear them say, “Oh my gosh! I ask everyone for feedback!” But what I was very surprised to learn was just how picky they were about who they asked for feedback from and who they listened to feedback from.
That’s not to say that if our boss gives us feedback we can’t brush it aside and say, “I don’t want to listen to it.” It’s a process of saying, firstly, “Does this person have my best interest at heart?” Not all feedback is helpful, not all feedback is well-intentioned. And then secondly, “Do I believe that they’re going to be honest with me?”
Caroline: You use the phrase “loving critic.” People who have your best interest at heart, but they’re able to have that objective perspective. There’s a lot you can do to help them give you the kind of specificity that is going to allow you to take the feedback on board without thinking, “I’m a bad person.” People will say, [for example] “Well, you know you’re not very punctual … ” But actually the specific thing is, maybe, you’re typically 10 minutes late on calls that have other people on it where you think that everybody else will be able to talk without you. Once you start to narrow it down, it starts becoming easier to think about how you solve it.