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Self-Awareness Without Cultivated Mindfulness Is Useless

Self-Awareness Without Cultivated Mindfulness Is Useless
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This article was originally published on Coach U Insights on September 20, 2022.

Much training and development work is focused on developing self-awareness. Human resources professionals, for example, lead workshops using assessments like Myers-Briggs (MBTI), DiSC, Colors or other similar tools. They teach communication or conflict management skills and introduce models of performance dialogue. HR departments then report on the percentage of people who took part in the trainings and tick off the contribution to leadership development.

What's the problem with that? As my partner frequently says, awareness ≠ change. Awareness by itself has virtually no value. Why is that? Because the capacity that's required to make real use of that self-awareness hasn't been cultivated. It's like having a seed with neither the soil, fertilizer or water necessary to help it grow. Creating the conditions for actual change requires cultivated reflective capacity or mindfulness.

Self-awareness is a wonderful first step. My partner and I consider the Enneagram far superior to the usual other self-awareness models. It has much more power and depth as well as a vertical component that identifies the qualities of each Enneagram type at different levels of applied self-awareness. Rather than putting people into boxes, it identifies the box they're already in and how to expand it so there's more and more freedom to align with their highest values and ideals, rather than with constricted self-absorption.

However, although we're skilled Enneagram teachers, we no longer agree to just provide introductory Enneagram training unless the senior leader guarantees that a context will be provided to support ongoing cultivation of reflective capacity. I'll explain.

The first step of personality-oriented self-awareness training is learning what "type" we are and the strengths and challenges of that type. But that, by itself, has minimal value. Two key qualities need to be cultivated to have this self-awareness be a catalyst for personal and professional growth and development.

One aspect of reflective capacity (or mindfulness) is development and ongoing strengthening of your "Inner Observer," an objective watcher who can observe what you're doing with curiosity and compassion. Most people have not developed the ability to observe themselves while going about their lives, holding questions like: "What am I really doing here?" or "What am I actually up to? What's the real reason I'm doing or saying this?" In order to make use of self-awareness, you need to continually hone your ability to catch yourself in the act, to have part of you engaged in your life while another part is watching with clarity and kindness, enabling more freedom to honor your strengths while choosing not to act in ways that are habitual but not aligned with your deepest values.

Gradually identifying with this Inner Observer also connects you to the source of deep inner peace and nourishment, knowing your value apart from what you do, something you can rest in that's not dependent on external circumstances. But strengthening your Inner Observer cannot simply be willed. It must be cultivated through regular mindfulness practice.

Effectiveness mindfulness practice puts you into an essential developmental sequence. You start out in life "embedded" in your thoughts and feelings. You identify with them as "who you are." This has you highly reactive to them. As you strengthen your Inner Observer, you now "have" your thoughts and feelings rather than "being" them. This allows much more freedom of choice in how you respond to situations. With further practice, you can observe your whole personality structure, watching its strengths and challenges, and then have even more choice to do what allows you and others to be happier and more successful.

But even this is not yet enough to catalyze real growth. Human development professionals often talk about being more responsive and less reactive. This means making more higher-level and more conscious choices, rather than being at the effect of our patterning. This might lead to choosing to listen more even though we feel compelled to tell the other person what to do, not hitting the "send" button even though we feel an almost overwhelming and righteous urge to do so, or holding our tongues when words of criticism, harsh judgment or blame are locked and loaded and ready to fire.

This is another aspect of reflective capacity or mindfulness that needs to be slowly cultivated over time. It also cannot be willed. At the root of almost all reactive behavior is the inability to stay present and relaxed when uncomfortable feelings arise. Without the cultivated ability to see and then relax into these feelings, we do or say whatever is needed to relieve ourselves from this inner tension. At the risk of being coarse, we vomit our reactions because we're unable to digest our inner turmoil. The resulting actions can be addictive (food, alcohol, work, etc.) and/or cause harm to ourselves and others, tearing apart our relationships, leading others to feel less safety and trust around us.

We grow slowly in our ability to first be aware of very uncomfortable feelings, and then to relax into their intensity without having to act on them. This is not easy. It needs to be cultivated over time.

If you cultivate these two kinds of reflective capacity or mindfulness (strengthening your Inner Observer as well as your ability to stay present and relaxed to uncomfortable feelings), you'll gradually have new abilities to bring out the best in yourself and others. You will be more aligned with your higher values and principles, create more safety and trust around you, collaborate more effectively, build richer connections with others and learn to recognize your own value. You will be a more effective leader and human being.

But none of that would necessarily arise through attending your initial self-awareness training. Yet training and development departments almost never have the mandate, resources and skills to assist individual participants in cultivating their reflective capacities, nor the permission to work with senior leaders to build such capacity-building into the organizational culture.

This is the reason my partner and I no longer conduct trainings without the explicit agreement on the part of senior leadership to support this work until it takes hold and builds sufficient traction to really make a difference.

Beware of self-awareness programs that don't clearly build in the ongoing cultivation of reflective capacity (mindfulness).

Originally published by Forbes Coaches Council

ICF Master Certified Coach

Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC,, is an executive coach and organizational consultant with extensive training and over 30 years' experience in understanding the functioning of both organizations and the people within them. His focus is on leadership development, executive coaching and team/organizational effectiveness.

A licensed Psychologist, he is an Official Member of the Forbes Coaches Council and the ICF has designated him a Master Certified Coach, their highest credential. His work incorporates the Enneagram, Mindfulness, Practical Neuroscience, Adult Development, Polarities, Complexity and other capacity-building approaches.

His clients have included Exxon-Mobil, General Electric, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Bank of NY Mellon, IBM, ADP, Broadridge, Ferrellgas, Grainger, PeopleSoft, StorageTek, Wide Open West, Ledcor, HSBC, PCL, Government of Alberta, Royal Bank, Dialog, Sanofi-Aventis, Edmonton Police Service, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, University of Calgary, Rehrig Pacific, New Belgium Brewing, Hagemeyer, HYL Architects, and Los Alamos National Labs.

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