Your Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, is a two-sided coin: on one side, you awareness of and intentional behavior toward yourself; on the other, your awareness of and intentional behavior toward others.
Self-awareness is the beginning of all serious work on personal growth. Your awareness of your motivations, your triggers, your values, and how you react under stress and in times of joy gives you essential information about how you show up in the world — to yourself, to others, to your work.
Awareness comes before control or influence. So, self-awareness speaks to our ability to observe and identify our thoughts and feelings, recognize them accurately, and differentiate them from the thoughts and feelings of those around us. Self-awareness is the observing or silently watching self that you can access during meditation or some kinds of journal writing.
Before you reflexively assert that you have self-awareness down on lock, let’s slow down and think about it for a minute. We all have situations in which we go “unconscious,” in which we reproduce unproductive behavior patterns, or act in ways established by our 16-year-old selves. Picture that awkward Thanksgiving Dinner from your nightmares — that holiday gathering is full of people who are not, in that place and time, practicing self-awareness. Cousin Sandy takes Uncle Bill’s bait because she always has; your middle sister plays the peacekeeper because she always has; you scream across the table at someone because it is, on some level, expected of you to do so.
Even in less fraught and nightmarish scenarios, though, situations at home and at work trigger us to respond reflexively, without thinking, without awareness. Developing the ability to watch and observe yourself in these moments, to create space to . . .imagine differently, or at least recognize that a pattern is repeating. . is key to self awareness.
Two Tools to Develop Self-Awareness
If you meditate regularly, you’ll recognize the observing self from sitting in meditation, being aware of your thoughts as they arise and then drift away. Your practice of letting the thoughts just be, without latching onto them and following them into a story about you and your past or your future, is a key ingredient in reflection and developing self-awareness.
If you don’t meditate, you can also access this observing self through a practice Janet Connor refers to as Writing Down Your Soul (in a book by the same name). This kind of journal writing is deep soul writing, where you aren’t approaching the journal as a precious artifact to record your days or your brilliance, but as a page upon which to scrawl the things in your head that need to come out but might not be the stuff of polite conversation. There are videos and prompts to go along with her book that give you an idea of how to approach this kind of soul observation in writing and I recommend the practice as a way to engage in deep conversation with yourself.
Self Management — the next step
Self management is what comes to mind when we think of EQ — a person’s ability to modulate their emotions and not get carried away by the feeling in the moment. We are able to manage ourselves best when we are aware of our emotions and of the “emotional wake” of our actions in the environment that others experience around us.
Self-management requires us to have tools at the ready to soothe and regulate our emotions — whether those emotions be anger, sadness, or wild exuberance. Not that we need to feel constant pressure to keep our emotions out of our workplaces! But it does feel better and allow us to choose the impact we are having if we step into that moment of awareness with a soothing mechanism: counting to ten; taking 5 deep breaths and exhaling slowly; writing the nasty retort, then throwing it in the trash and going for a 5-minute walk.
Many of us would prefer that, when our emotions surge to the tip of our tongue, that the other person or people in the situation with us would change. “If only So-and-so wasn’t so passive aggressive, I wouldn’t get so angry” and so on. However, changing others is not within our power — as we all know, in our calmer moments — but having control over our own reactions are.
In the academic workplace, we have ample opportunity to experience frustration with our colleagues, with administrators, with our students, or with TAs. Creating self-awareness enables us to self manage by providing us with opportunities to reflect and act according to our priorities and values, rather than just how we feel in the moment.
Our degree of self management also speaks to how well we act organizationally. Trustworthiness/conscientiousness are part of self management, as being perceived as trustworthy is evidence that we do act consistently in accordance with our values. Our moral compass is perceivable to others and we behave and make decisions ethically. This component of self-management indicates that we are driven and motivated by an inner sense of values, a sense of right and wrong, etc.
As an academic leader, you can establish your reputation for your commitment to students, to your discipline, to your institution — whatever is consistent with your values and career goals — with consistent and ethical self management. Consistency, however, does not mean rigidity. People who self-manage well are adaptable — they are open to the need and possibility for change.
Academia tends to reward displays of confidence and authority over those of openness to learning. Focusing on EQ, though, is a commitment to your continued professional and personal growth. Practicing self-awareness and self management are the first two steps in developing your Emotional Intelligence and, with that, your leadership skills.