The specific advice you should seek (and ignore) to become more self-aware

Yes, you should care what other people think of you.
Yes, you should care what other people think of you.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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Self-awareness is the meta skill of the 21st century. Research shows it’s the essential foundation for high performance, making smart choices, and forming strong relationships. But while we bemoan the lack of self-awareness in our politicians, bosses, and Facebook friends, we rarely consider whether we might have room to improve, too.

According to findings from my three-year research program on the subject, 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% actually are. So why do we fall so short? One reason is that though it’s relatively common to see self-awareness as clarity about our inner workings (things like our values, our goals, and our ideal environment), true self-awareness also requires that we turn our gaze outward to understand how we are seen.

This isn’t a popular perspective. Many people believe that it’s simply not important what people think about you—all that matters is what you think about yourself. But, unfortunately, this just isn’t true. If we want to be successful at work and happy at home, we must consider how the important people in our lives perceive us.

It’s not that how we view ourselves is wrong or useless, nor should we develop an insecure concern about what people think. But because others see us more objectively than we see ourselves, we should take the time to understand their point of view. How else can we discover the hidden strengths that give us a unique edge, or the blind spots that are hurting our relationships without our even knowing it?

It’s perfectly normal to feel a mild sense of nausea at the mere idea of seeking out candid feedback about yourself, so here are five suggestions to help you get honest perspectives on the real you without losing your mojo.

Be picky about who you ask

Not all feedback is well-intended or helpful, whether it’s a colleague gunning for your job, an ex with a grudge, or a friend who thinks you can do no wrong. Highly self-aware people are selective about who they get feedback from, relying mostly on a small, trusted group of loving critics: people who’ll be honest with them while keeping their best interests at heart. Interestingly, this isn’t always those who you’re closest to. In general, the best loving critics check three boxes: You should be confident they want you to be successful; they should have regular exposure to the behaviors you want to learn more about; and they should have a pattern of telling the truth, even when it’s difficult for people to hear.

Provide parameters

Failing to give our loving critics parameters is confusing for them and unhelpful to us. For example, asking an innocent yet vague question to a coworker like “Can you tell me how I’m doing?” might yield anything from helpful feedback on how you appear in meetings to their opinions about your fashion choices and water-cooler banter. Instead, think about the skills or behaviors that are most important for you to be successful, happy, and fulfilled in the area of your life you’re seeking help—then ask specifically about those. A salesperson might explore his behavior in prospecting meetings; a CEO might look at the clarity of her communications; a friend might investigate whether he’s a good listener. Another gift of specificity is that if you hear something critical, it’s less likely to feel like an indictment of your entire personality.

Give them time

When we ask someone for feedback, it’s important to look at our request from their perspective. For this reason, it’s a good idea to give them a day or two to decide if they have the time and energy to really help you—and then they’ll be even more committed when they do. Also provide time to collect data and observe the issue you’re concerned about. If you want to know how you’re coming across in meetings, for example, let them see you in action during a few before asking for a download. When you do, you’ll get far more helpful—and specific—information.

Commit to curiosity

No matter how surprised we are at what we hear, it’s critical to remain curious. Sometimes just saying to yourself, That’s surprising. I wonder what I’m doing that’s making them say that? can change the conversation from a trial-by-fire to a fact-finding mission. It’s also best to focus more on asking questions and listening than on explaining or justifying. Try questions like, “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” or “Can you give me a few examples where you’ve seen this behavior?” Your job in this conversation isn’t to answer for the behavior—it’s merely to understand it.

Give yourself space and grace

We often force ourselves to figure out exactly what critical feedback means and what we’ll do about it, then and there. But it’s best to first take some time to react and cool off. If you’re upset after an honest conversation with a loving critic, do something that will boost your mood and give you some perspective, be it a long run, a tasty take-out meal, or a night out with friends. In fact, veteran feedback-seekers usually give themselves days or even weeks to bounce back after hearing something truly surprising or upsetting before they choose their course of action. It’s not only okay to take this time—it’s essential.

Above all, we must be as gentle with ourselves as we are honest. No feedback is ever an indictment of our inherent value or a full picture of who we are. At the end of the day, we all have strengths and weaknesses. And exploring them—through inward introspection and external feedback—is the key to a successful and self-accepting life.