"Yes, but, it wasn't my fault…."
"Yes, but, I didn't know…."
"Yes, but, they said…."
That's what Julie's manager heard whenever he gave Julie (the new junior software engineer) feedback about her low performance. Whenever he would suggest a way she might improve her work, she'd respond with a "yes, but" and some defensive excuse. While this new engineer's technical skills were acceptable, they weren't stellar -- unlikely to improve if she couldn't handle hearing constructive feedback, let alone criticism.
So when the company president called for staff reductions, her manager remembered Julie's "yes, but" responses. After being told her position was terminated, Julie tweeted to her friends, "I just got fired! They expect too much! It's not fair!"
Are You Aware of Your Habits?
When I heard about Julie's defensiveness, I wondered if Julie knew the real reason she was fired. Did she understand that engineering skills weren't the issue? Was she aware of her defensive 'yes, but' habit?
Emotional routines like Julie's operate below the level of our conscious awareness. Think about what happens when you take a photo with your smart phone. You provide the "trigger" of pressure on the phone, the device does the rest with information it has stored. The same happens with habits. An emotional trigger occurs and you respond using the routine stored in the part of your brain called the basal ganglia. For Julie, when she heard "criticism," her brain kicked into its automatic "yes, but" defense.
To change your phone, you need to know what happens after you press the button. Then, you must modify the software it triggers. The same is true for our habits. Before you can change an automatic emotional response, you have to be aware it exists. You need self-awareness.
Why Self-Awareness Matters
For Julie, lack of awareness of her defensive reactions cost her a job. Self-awareness, one of the four key components of emotional intelligence, underlies the other three. Without knowing what we're feeling, we can't take steps to control those emotions. Such self-management is the second component. Lacking self-awareness, we can't have the third, social awareness. We don't understand how we impact other people and can't tune in to what others feel. Moving beyond awareness of others to interaction, without self-awareness, the fourth – relationship management – is impossible.
How to Develop Self-Awareness?
Does Julie want to develop self-awareness? Do you? That's the first step, to have a desire to be aware of your emotions. Perhaps ask yourself why, then take these steps.
Stop: Practicing mindfulness is a superb way to develop self-awareness. Recognizing that our minds wander about 50% of the time, "mindfulness" refers to that move where you notice your mind wandered. With mindfulness, you monitor whatever goes on within the mind. It sounds simple, but it is more challenging to put into practice. The way I learned mindfulness is through meditating, sitting quietly, stepping back from a busy brain to focus on the present moment. I've shared several techniques for mindfulness in my audio CD Cultivating Focus.
Look: Once you've stopped, notice and name what you're feeling. It's helpful to practice this at different times of day, in different situations. Take a few moments to tune in to yourself. Our counter-productive habits, like Julie's improvement-blocking kneejerk defensiveness, come up over and over. One key signal we're in their grip is the bodily sensations they trigger. Notice, for example, are you breathing slowly or holding your breath? Does your pulse feel slow or fast? Are you sweating? Do your muscles feel tense?
Listen: One of the best ways to become aware of yourself is to ask others how they perceive you. That's the value of 360-degree feedback tools. You fill out a survey about your behavior and ask trusted others to fill out the same survey. A good coach can help you review the differences between your perceptions and the experiences of others.
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If you'd like to learn more about developing self-awareness and how to change self-defeating habits, I encourage you to join Tara Bennett-Goleman and I at Omega Institute in August for Connecting Emotional Intelligence with Mindful Habit Change: A Gentle Path to Awakening. Tara is a teacher, psychotherapist, and author of Mind Whispering and the New York Times best-seller Emotional Alchemy.