Self Awareness Is A Coaching Super-Skill

Self-awareness is a critical skill to develop as a coach and a person -- learn how you can leverage the three levels of awareness to create a better life.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

Practical Tools for Cultivating Self Awareness

When we think about awareness, we tend to think of ourselves. Indeed “self-awareness” is a buzzword in nearly every facet of life these days. And as we know, sound bites only go skin deep. In this podcast episode, John and Noelle are peeling back the layers to explore how self awareness applies both to ourselves as coaches, as well as our work with clients.

Three Forms of Awareness

For a more nuanced take on the subject, let’s begin from the premise that awareness actually occurs on three levels: the self, others, and systems. 

1) Self

Seeing yourself with clarity is a 360 degree endeavor that bridges the gap between your internal world and external reality. In this context, self awareness involves:

  • Recognizing your emotions and feelings
  • Seeing and understanding your values and motivations
  • Recognizing your behavior and the impact that it has.

This includes both what happens directly as a result of your behavior, as well as how others see and experience you.

For coaches this notion of how a client experiences you is particularly important. As professionals, self awareness includes an inner assessment of not just how we wish to be perceived, but how others actually experience us. To learn this, we must be willing to open ourselves up to critique and feedback.

2) Other

On this level, you’re considering how you see the people around you: family, friends, colleagues, even strangers at the grocery store. 

  • What are their values, needs, motivations and behaviors?  
  • What resources do others have? 
  • How might you leverage those resources and capacities?  

This sounds complicated, but in many cases it simply comes down to being present in your environment.

For example, let’s say you are out grocery shopping and see a jar that is too high for you to reach. Looking around, you see a store staff member with a stocking ladder at the other end of the aisle. Right next to you is a fellow shopper who appears to be well over six feet tall. How might you leverage awareness of others to meet your objective?

3) Organizational

Organizational awareness applies to any system that you happen to be a part of, including your family, friend group, and work environment. It also refers to the larger systems and structures of society that we exist within.

This level of awareness refers to a system’s ability to:

  • See itself honestly
  • Report out accurately on limitations
  • Engage with growth points that need to be addressed
  • Recognize opportunities and potential

Organizational awareness is really useful for individuals to use as a means of setting expectations or goals, and to harness empathy.

A great example of this in a friend system is the accountability that comes from a shared challenge such as Dry January.

In a family system, it might be examining holiday spending together and deciding to tighten the belt at the start of the new year. Or conversely - a family might generate awareness that you’ve been spending little time together, and so you decide to schedule a Saturday outing to have some fun.

Woman on busy street high-fiving another person

Putting it all together

According to a recent article in Quartz: “These types of awareness fit together like nesting dolls, building on each other. At its center, our strengthened sense of awareness must start with the self; that helps us build awareness of others, which expands our view into our organization. With full awareness, we are able to bring fresh eyes to the dynamics within the system… the people… and ourselves.”

Lumia mentor coach and instructor Juliann Wiese recently shared on our Reframing podcast episode that people don’t see the world as it is - we see the world as we are. Juliann went on to say that one of the jobs – and benefits – of coaching is to pull people out of their personal narrative so they can harness a more expansive view.  

Self awareness combats what Psychologist Christine Fonseca calls “the unreliable narrator” (our brain!)

Our thoughts, especially when left unexamined, will at best serve up personal truths rather than global truth. When working on self awareness it is imperative to understand that we sift facts and reality through a filter of our personal biases and perceptions about the world.

Overcoming Defense Mechanisms

How do we lay the foundation for self-awareness? It often begins with an understanding of personal defense mechanisms.

Seeing ourselves clearly is not always a comfortable business. And as coaches, when we hold the mirror and flashlight up for our clients, what’s reflected back may not always be easy to digest.

In order to grow and change, we need to first become aware of what we do that may be hurting us.

So what are defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are unconscious attempts to get rid of stress or negative emotions. They are hard to trace since they happen underneath the level of conscious choice and are often habitual. This is why it is often difficult and confusing when someone receives the feedback “You are being defensive."

Defense mechanisms are sometimes useful when encountering emergency situations. However, under normal circumstances defense mechanisms limit a person's ability to adapt well in life because they distance us from crucial self-knowledge. This in turn can lead to a decrease in self-awareness and emotional intelligence. (Glossary of Defence Mechanisms, Tumblr) 

In this podcast, John and Noelle offer examples of several common defense mechanisms: projection, displacement, denial and undoing. For a complete listing, see: Defense Mechanisms in Psychology Explained (+ Examples).

We can learn to spot defensiveness in ourselves and others and approach the conundrum with empathy and self-compassion.

This is a particularly important skill to have when we receive direct feedback that we are “being defensive.” Pausing to consider such feedback is part of cultivating awareness of others - are we really hearing people without imposing our own, faulty narrative? It's also useful to know how to navigate client defensiveness inside a coaching session as we support them in gaining a wider perspective.

Two women sitting at a table having a heated conversation

Applying Self Awareness

Ultimately, how you engage with your defense mechanisms as they arise - as they do for everyone - comes down to this: Are you LEARNING as you have new experiences and move through life?

In coaching we characterize the answer to this question as the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  

A fixed mindset keeps us locked in our current perspective. This may include an unwillingness to take in feedback, or consider things from another point of view.

With a growth mindset, we are able to harness reflection-fueled self awareness in order to understand global truth over personal truth. This, in turn, helps us decide how we may want to do things differently in the future.

Reflection is a necessary part of our learning process. Cultivating an awareness of what we DON’T want to be or do is equally as important as holding an awareness of how we DO want to show up! The key to doing this well is in treating our difficulties, challenges, obstacles, missteps, mistakes, and failures as opportunities to learn. 

When you work with your awareness in this way, a whole new world opens up. You are no longer blind to your reality. Along the way, you become more accepting of all aspects of yourself, which calms inner conflict and frees up mental energy to chart a course forward.

PRO TIP: Review, reflect, revise.

Scheduling time at the end of each day or week to reflect on what you did, how you did it, and what you’ll do differently next time helps to bolster how well you can see yourself. 

Woman drinking a cup of coffee, looking thoughtfully into the distance

Extending Our Awareness To Others

The pandemic pulled back the curtain on our personal lives, both at home and at work. We were forced to really see the people around us and become more authentic with each other. 

This hasn't always been easy, but one positive outcome is that many of us have been able to drop our curated social exteriors. Some have been able to enforce better boundaries, and have become more open as a result. And all of us have learned that we need to learn about other people in a new way.  

Bridging the gap between self and other awareness requires that we make a specific effort to understand how other people see us. This is incredibly hard work and takes big doses of humility to enact, but the payoff is worthwhile.  

Only 10-15 percent of people familiar with this level of self awareness actually wield its full power, but those who do are:

Research shows that the number one way to develop other-awareness is to seek out feedback from loving critics. We're talking now about people who have your best interests in mind AND are willing to tell you the truth.

When you seek feedback from others, it is important to be mindful of overreaction or overcorrection based on one person’s opinion, and to gut-check difficult or surprising feedback that you receive. When in doubt, take challenging feedback to your loving critics to get an honest, unbiased take on it.

Developing other awareness is not a one way street. In the same way that you are taking time to view how others consume you, it is important to also reflect upon the extent to which you are accurately seeing others. This includes an inventory of your baked in bias, blind spots, and internal defensiveness (which we all have - there’s no feeling bad here!) Often this comes down to poking holes in your own stories and experimenting with new ways of being so that you can access resources more effectively.  

In the same way that asking for feedback is the best way to learn how others see you, asking others how they see themselves will help generate an awareness of those around you.  Taking the time to learn and internalize what makes them tick helps you avoid needless conflict and work through the healthy conflict as it arises.

Group of people around a table having a meeting

Developing Organizational Awareness

Let’s round it out by taking a look at organizational awareness, which is where we bring all of this together. 

But first, why is this important? Expecting to show up effectively without being aware of your environment is like trying to run a race in a blizzard and not taking into account how the conditions will impact your performance!

From that perspective, organizational awareness relates to your ability to see your environment for what it is and determine what is on track or in alignment with the conditions that you need for performance. This level of awareness also helps determine what needs to be brought to the surface for change. 

As we think about organizational awareness, it can be useful to draw from the ACE cycle of change, which stands for: Awareness, Choice, and Execution (Stober & Grant, 2006). According to the ACE model of change, one must first become aware before being able to accurately assess choice in one’s life and environment.  

Using the ACE Cycle in Coaching

When we apply ACE to organizational awareness with a client, what's required is a deep look around at both the present and the past to understand an organizational system and the people within it from the context of history. 

In the ACE model, the Awareness phase is used to gather data of all sorts: historical, factual, emotional and so on. Once we feel we have the best view that we can possibly provide ourselves with what is and what has been, we can move onto choice.

At the Choice stage, we move on to planning what action to take. Here we use awareness to develop a plan within the context of the client's history, desires, and the current options that are available to them.

And finally, with Execution the client moves from thought to action, from being to doing. Awareness alone will not help anyone move forward, but multidimensional awareness combined with a plan for action is an excellent way to navigate organizational awareness.

Person running on the beach with a surfboard

Final Thoughts

If everything was working perfectly within all of the systems that support our lives, we would be exceeding our goals and waking up naturally at our chosen time! There would be no sick kids or overdue bills, and our families and friends would bring us nothing but joy and ease. Our homes would remain clean and uncluttered at all times and we would float from one activity to the next like a unicorn on a cloud.

If you were shaking your head at that image juxtaposed against reality, consider the lessons of the three layers of awareness. At the end of the day, the final reality to contend with exists inside of us. This includes our ability to become aware of what is, the way we feel about it, what needs to be shifted, and the resources internal, external, or communal that need to be activated in order to take meaningful action to create conditions that we feel great experiencing.  

Most of us get stuck in bridging the gap between awareness and taking action due to a fear of how we are perceived. We get stuck in a space of inaction because we're afraid of how others may judge us.

There is great irony at the source of many forms of "stuckness," because it often leads right back to the cornerstone of self awareness work: undoing defensiveness. 

At Lumia and as coaches, we don’t judge the imperfect. Perfection isn't the goal. What's far more important is our ability to bring honest awareness (including how we feel) to the table so that we can move towards more positive outcomes.   

Engaging organizational awareness requires a commitment to doing things differently when we aren’t getting the result we want, which is in and of itself uncomfortable. Awareness of “what is” includes looking at both the quality and effectiveness of ourselves against the three layers of awareness: 

  • Is this working for the self?
  • Is this working for others? 
  • Is this working for the org/family/relationship?

It’s a lot of work to constantly become aware, figure out what needs to happen, and then do it. It's also worth it. When we take ownership through awareness without tearing ourselves down in the process, we win. Ohers win. And the systems that support our lives win as well.

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