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Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness

Self-awareness isn't easy, but it's a key component of emotional intelligence, better relationships and better outcomes.

8 min read


Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness

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A huge factor in improving your emotional intelligence is your personal awareness and understanding of how your behavior affects others.

Sometimes our reactions to others seem involuntary and beyond our control. A lack of understanding about how we can best interact with others can create problems, especially in an emotionally charged situation.  

One of our company members recently shared an experience that her daughter had with an angry customer. Her daughter is a customer service representative for a food company that offers prepared meals to customers on a weekly basis. Occasionally, the meals may arrive late or in a damaged condition. When either happens, customers call in to receive assistance in the form of refunds, replacement meals or other exchanges.

One day, a customer called in to report the receipt of damaged goods. When the customer requested a replacement, my friend’s daughter replied, “I can absolutely help you with that.”  

She was surprised when the customer exclaimed, “What kind of a company is this? I bet you are not even 18. You should know that no one who is professional would use the word ‘absolutely!’”

She calmly replied, “I will have you know that I am over 18, and I would be more than happy to help you.”

Still frustrated, the customer said, “I need you to replace these meals. Can you do that or not?” My friend’s daughter responded, “Yep, I can do that!”

The customer went off again telling the young representative that she was the epitome of unprofessionalism.

When I heard this story, the first thing I thought was that it was good that the food being requested was prepackaged. Then I wondered if the customer was aware how his behavior affected my friend’s daughter.

When trying to improve your emotional intelligence, personal awareness can be difficult to attain because you do not see yourself the way you are seen and most people are uncomfortable giving negative feedback to others. We also often excuse our poor behavior because of our positive intent.

Granted we all have bad days, but there really is no excuse for belittling and demeaning others. Here are a number of questions you can ask yourself to increase your personal awareness of how your behavior may be affecting others.

1. What part of my behavior do I not see?

This is a difficult question to answer because we don’t often stop and reflect on how our behavior may affect others. If you have a relationship with someone who you would trust to be totally honest with you, then you might ask them whether they’re willing to share how you come across to others.

If they are willing to share their perspective, be sure to ask for examples of specific behavior, don’t defend yourself, and thank them for their willingness to be candid.

2. Do you know who or what sets you off?

Sometimes the things that people say or do can be irritating. The key is to use your own emotions as the key to understanding yourself. Your negative emotional reaction signals that there is some part of interacting with others that serves as an emotional trigger.

Take the time to explore the thinking behind your negative feelings by asking yourself, “What did I expect or want and not get?” Answering these questions as many times as you can will help you surface the thinking that is often buried in your subconscious.   

3. Are your relationships growing and deepening, or are they diminishing and contracting?

Making an honest assessment of the quality of your relationships will serve to heighten your awareness about your interactions with people.

4. Do people seek you out as a sounding board or for advice and support?

If no one is coming around, then you have to wonder how approachable you are. When people perceive you as someone who is empathetic or supportive of their current challenges, they may seek your perspective on what is currently happening in their world.

People want to connect and will gravitate to those they believe care about them and are willing to listen. If these characteristics are missing from your interpersonal toolkit, then that may account for this lack of interaction with others.  

5. Do people volunteer to give you feedback?

When people feel safe around you and have your best interests at heart, they may look for opportunities to offer information about your interactions with others. If no one is volunteering to give you feedback about the quality of your delivery, they may not feel they can approach you and share what may be difficult to hear.

If someone cares about you, they will look to help you improve, but if they believe there may be negative consequences for being straightforward, then they are most likely to keep their thoughts to themselves.

6. Do you seek feedback from others on what you could do to improve?

If you are not making a conscious effort to reach out to others, increasing your awareness and making a deliberate attempt to improve your leadership and the way you interact, don’t expect others to step up and candidly volunteer what may be difficult to hear.

You might want to begin by asking people for things that you do well, then get around to what you could do to improve. What is important is that you are visibly making an effort and commitment to improve how you interact with others. That will go a long way toward enhancing your credibility.

7. Do you express appreciation to others?

This implies that you go out of your way to notice or catch people doing the right things. Once you have firsthand knowledge of their behavior, you are in a position to mention their efforts, the positive impact they have had, and to thank them for their contribution.

Often the only time leaders talk to their people is when something has gone wrong. You will know this is the case if you go to thank someone and they practically fall over or offer an expression of bewilderment or disbelief.

Early in my marriage, I expressed appreciate to my spouse for a wonderful event she hosted in our home. She looked at me visibly stunned and asked me if I was sick. That’s when I realized that I had work to do.

8. Do you let your past history dictate how you treat others?

This is difficult to avoid and another challenging question to answer. When we have a negative history with some people, we allow it to color how we treat them. Unfortunately, if we have negative beliefs about certain people, those beliefs go a long way in determining how we interact with them. Those negative beliefs may also impact how they interact with us.

The challenge becomes to recognize our biases and then make a conscious choice to be more objective and equitable with people who violated our expectations in the past.

9. Are your interactions with others yielding the results that you want?

Of course, there are multiple parties involved in any interaction, but if you are not getting the results that you want, stop and ask yourself how you may be contributing to those results.

Our contributions, what we are doing or not doing, play a huge factor in the outcomes we receive. Recognizing the part your contributions play in the outcomes will broaden your perspective and help you make choices that will yield more positive results.

10. What similar situations repeatedly show up?

I believe that what goes ignored or unlearned continues to manifest itself repeatedly, leading to the same outcomes. Noticing patterns of behavior and results is one key to making important changes.

Becoming more emotionally intelligent begins by understanding yourself and how your behavior impacts others. Your inability to recognize and understand how you show up for other people will keep you from making the kinds of personal connections that an effective leader desires to achieve. Developing greater personal awareness will increase your emotional intelligence leading to more positive and effective interactions with others.   


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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