Most people think of improving social skills as the path to better relationships, but there is another way that may surprise you–expanding your awareness. This article explores three levels of awareness important for human relations and offers insights and tools for improving your interpersonal and professional relationships.
Your awareness is like looking through a lens—what you focus on comes clearly into view while what’s outside your view fades away. In human relations, awareness of others, yourself and your social surroundings are equally important. While almost everyone has some ability to tap each of these types of awareness for relating well with others, most of us tend to be more proficient in one and less so in the other two. The problem is when you view and relate with others through only one lens–the perspective of your own self-awareness for example–you may very well overlook the feelings and needs of others and find yourself having a one-sided relationship. But don’t worry–you can easily learn to improve the quality of your social and professional relationships by simply expanding your awareness. Here’s how:
Awareness of others
Those of you who enjoyed the science fiction movie, Avatar, will probably recall the traditional greeting of the Na-vi people of Pandora. They said simply, “I see you,” but much was implied in that short phrase. The greeting conveyed a genuine sense of honor and empathy for others; it embodied the essence of the Na-vi culture, in which people and the living environment were intertwined in a harmonious relationship.
Though relationships here on planet earth are seldom as perfect as on Pandora, we humans also have the innate capacity to “see” one another. Scientists have discovered how mirror neurons in an individual’s brain cause him or her to actually experience what someone else is sensing and feeling. Have you ever witnessed someone cutting a finger and you winced because you experienced the sensation of being cut as well? This is an example of the power of your mirror neurons.
While we have the inherent ability to feel what others experience, developing good relationships requires two additional steps–reading others’ cues accurately and responding in a way that lets them know you understand them. Seeing others accurately is a skill that can be strengthened. Dr. Paul Ekman identified 7 universal emotions felt and expressed by people across the world. You can learn to read others’ expressions and emotions more accurately by following this link to use Dr. Ekman’s online Micro-Expressions Training Tool: http://www.paulekman.com/micro-expressions/.
Those of you who are naturally tuned into others already know how your attention and responsiveness to people invites them to engage with you and others. Just a few nights ago, I was at a dinner party where people were talking loudly and passionately about their work. One of the women there saw that I was having a hard time getting a word in edgewise and she turned to me and said, “Tell me about the workshop you’re facilitating next week.” Her attention and invitation helped me to join the conversation. My friendship and trust with her grew as well!
If you take time to observe people who appear to be relating well, one of the things you’ll probably see is the delicate balance of other and self-awareness. One person talks, the other listens and responds; one person leans forward, the others’ eyes widen. In this flowing dance of give and take, your self-awareness is half of the equation. Yet, as the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” All of us have blind spots–gaps in our awareness where we see ourselves very differently than others see us. I bet you have experienced working with someone who talks too loud or someone is so quiet that it is difficult to get to know them, yet they appear to be unaware that others see them this way.
Practices for reducing blind spots include asking others how they see you and paying attention to how people respond to your words and actions. Learning how you are coming across to others serves as a kind of relationship barometer that enables you to respond appropriately rather than making relationship blunders that can turn people away. Those of you who have received feedback (hasn’t everyone these days?) know how hard it can be. It can raise the hair on the back of your neck while you’re trying to control your urge to say, “I didn’t mean it that way.” Surprise and even anger are common responses to learning something about yourself you didn’t see before, even if it’s positive.
But ultimately, self-awareness is worth the effort. It can increase your ability to make wise choices about your interactions. When you understand how others see you and are realistic about your strengths and challenges you’re better able to choose the most fitting words and actions for the person and the situation; over time, your good choices will boil down to creating more trusting long-term relationships.
When you enter a room where people are gathered, where does your attention go first? Do you sense the overall mood in the room, or do you focus more on your own thoughts and emotions like feeling awkward or anticipating what you might say? If you tend to see the whole picture and look for clues about how people are interacting and what they’re doing, you’re probably more socially aware. You automatically read the room when you enter, noticing patterns of interaction such as who’s talking the most, the distance between people, their body language and levels of engagement.
Those who are socially aware are also tuned into the prevailing norms of behavior such as how people behave toward one another and tolerance for individual differences. These norms, which vary among different places and cultures, have a powerful influence on how relationships are initiated and how they develop. For example, on a recent visit to Mexico I was startled early one morning while standing in line for coffee when a group of Mexican soldiers in serious camouflage and full military gear lined up behind me. Much to my surprise, one of the men turned to me with a warm greeting, “Good day seÑora. How are you?” I soon learned that it was customary to greet others in this way (even strangers) when passing on the street, in grocery stores and other public places. In Mexico, to ignore someone in passing is considered rude and closes the door to any further conversation. I missed these friendly greetings when I returned to Oregon, where engaging with strangers is sometimes considered okay, but isn’t such a common norm.
Are you tuned into the norms for handling sensitive information, greeting others when coming into a room and other human dynamics in your workplace and social circles? Following the prevailing norms can keep you out of trouble in the groove with people whose relationships are important to you.
Toward better relationships: Expanding your awareness
So, is it better to be more socially aware, more self-aware or more aware of others? You got it—all three are essential for great relationships. The problem is that very few people are equally balanced in their levels of awareness. Habits for looking through a particular lens of awareness are determined by genetics, life experiences, physical and mental characteristics and sometimes by conditions such as brain injuries and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Each of the levels of awareness–self, other, and social—has their strengths and challenges for relating with others. For example, if you have high self-awareness, your knowledge and objectivity are likely to be a great resource to others, but you may have difficulty collaborating because you already have things figured out. Likewise, awareness of others is essential, but if taken to the extreme may contribute to losing sight of your own needs and advocating for yourself. Social awareness creates an advantage for influencing others and leading change, but may result in you moving ahead so quickly that you lose sight of other individuals and leave them behind.
Learning to see and interact with others through different levels of awareness is like learning someone else’s language. You’ll be surprised at your ability to relate more authentically with others when you shift and expand your awareness to connect with people on common ground.
Here are some tips:
- Start from your strengths. Don’t stop doing what you do well! For example, if you’re extremely aware of others, keep that–it’s a great thing. Just work on expanding your ability for self and social awareness so you can reach out to people with different levels of awareness and respond to them in a different light.
- Keep all three levels of awareness in mind. I often repeat the mantra “me” (self-awareness), “thee” (awareness of others), and “we” (social awareness) as I’m walking into an important meeting or sensitive conversation. Find a signal for yourself that reminds to you shift your awareness to tune into all aspects of a situation, especially when the stakes are high, like when you are crosswise with someone you really care about or when you can predict that behaviors by another individual will trigger your strong feelings.
- Learn more about your relationship style, including your levels of awareness. You can take a free survey at relationshipstyles.com and receive a 9 page report with insights and tips for relating well with others. Enjoy!
Charlene J. Phipps offers seminars, presentations, facilitation and educational resources for effective human dynamics in the workplace and community. See additional articles and resources at www.humandynamicsblog.com.