Updated: Jan 29
When I teach soft skills, I always start with awareness. I see this as the foundational soft skill that allows you to access all the others. When I'm teaching, I put awareness into two camps: internal and external awareness.
I define internal awareness as "examining our emotions, getting clarity on our values and questioning our beliefs so that we have a deeper understanding of ourselves." Internal awareness allows us to process information we receive and be present in how we respond. Those with high self-awareness tend to have fewer emotional outbursts, remain calm during conflict and practice patience and forgiveness of themselves and others.
External awareness is about observing how others respond to situations, our words or our actions. External awareness gives us valuable information about how our behaviors impact others. When we are actively engaged in observation, we gain insight into what provokes our colleagues to be frustrated, at ease, stressed, joyful or sad. This skill gives us the ability to inquire, gain clarity, offer assistance, resolve conflict or offer support.
While the concepts of internal and external awareness may seem obvious to many, putting this skill into practice can be a real challenge. After observing behavior in clients when coaching or leading workshops, I now believe that the biggest challenge in harnessing the power of awareness are two soft skills that immediately surface when we step into awareness. These soft skills are probably the two most difficult to confront for most people—accountability and adaptability.
Multiple studies have shown that our brains actually AVOID these two soft skills unless they are directly linked to our survival. For example, if you have a fear of water but you're being chased by a wild animal and the only way to safety is to run across a river, then our minds our like, "Ok, time to get over the water thing." But without life threatening pressure, our minds are less interested in changing or owning responsibilities.
Accountability is hard for our brain because this often requires us to put our egos in the back seat (or if we have a loud ego, the trunk, where I have to put mine from time to time) and that's the last place our ego's like to be. Accountability can produce some heavy emotions if we don't have the psychological support that gives us the compassion and reassurance that we'll still find belonging and acceptance after we become accountable. It's difficult to account for things we did that caused damage to situations, ourselves or others because our brains are hard wired to avoid discomfort.
How often have you stepped into awareness only to find yourself running in the opposite direction the second you realized you would need to own up to a mistake or change a behavior that has always worked for you? I consider this dynamic the "Bermuda Triangle of Soft Skills" and it can be a place where many get lost, never to revisit awareness again.
When I first began to practice awareness, I definitely sank a few ships in these waters. One story that comes to mind was when I brought awareness to my relationship with my sister. As the older sibling, I benefited from ignoring her needs in order to pursue my own and, because I was older, my needs often won out. I would often make promises I didn't keep or blow off tasks or chores when they involved my sister. The toll this took on our relationship was really horrible and during those years we did not experience the connection we do now.
Finally, a day came when my sister had the courage to advocate for herself by telling me that when I ignored her needs she felt hurt, invisible and unloved. That sat with me for a long time. The awareness that I was failing as a sister was a bitter pill to swallow. What made this worse was how I responded to this new information. My first reaction was reluctance to be held accountable. This showed up with thoughts like, "Jeez, can't she just get over it. It's not that bad." But I noticed that when I gave that narration weight, I felt worse. I felt guilt and then shame that I was intentionally ignoring the needs of someone I loved.
When I became accountable for my actions, the next defense that rose up was an adversity to change. This showed up with thoughts like, "I mean, it worked for me. Is it really so bad to keep doing it that way?" When I heard thoughts like that, my ego would be stroked and I would feel a cool wash of self-righteousness come over me. But here's the thing about self-righteousness... it's only shame masquerading as greatness. The comfort of feeling this way did not produce greater connection with my sister. Instead our relationship became more difficult.
After sitting with a strongly-fed ego and a starving soul, I finally realized that I needed to try something else. I decided to put effort into doing something different. The decision to hear my sister's needs was a combined action of accountability AND adaptability. Just holding space for her needs and owning the fact that I could do better was hard but it also opened up our relationship for the better. I acknowledged that I had ignored her needs. It felt like shit at first and my ego reared up like a belligerent Ms. Daisy from the back seat. As I committed to holding space for my sister's needs, my ego became less bruised and I began to feel the shift that deepened my connection with her.
When I held myself accountable with my changed behavior, I began to realize that I had so much to bring to the table in this relationship. This gave me a sense of connection that was deeply fueled by love and a desire to be reliable. I was able to understand why change was beneficial for me, too. It has been almost two decades since that first encounter with awareness when I didn't bail out but chose to dig in. The benefits have been immense and we have the relationship we have today because both of us can navigate the "Soft Skills Bermuda Triangle" with courage, compassion and candid honesty. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I hadn't dared to relinquish my ego and try something different. What I see when I go down that dark path only makes me more grateful that I chose the action I did.
Practicing awareness can be a real struggle but when I identified the connection awareness has to accountability and adaptability, I was able to apply courage to help me navigate those harsh waters. Now when I head out to those soft skills waters, I know the rigging I need to have on board. When I struggle with accountability, it's time to have a compassionate conversation with my ego and ask it to hop in the back seat or go below deck. When I'm reluctant to change, I lean into courage and give myself permission to be imperfect but still try nonetheless. I, also, remind myself that this work is a practice not a perfect and that gives me the confidence to step into the unknown and take a risk.
Awareness is a foundational soft skill that we need in order to build the other soft skills upon it. When we dismiss, reject or deny awareness because accountability and adaptability are too scary or challenging, we stifle our own growth and development before we even start. Overcoming discomfort is hard—no doubt about it—but when I became aware that not changing would be worse, I could no longer let my discomfort win.
If our goal is to have more meaningful relationships, feel confident and centered and thrive in life, we need awareness to get us there. Discomfort will be part of that journey and that can be scary but not half as scary as continuing the destructive patterns that no longer serve us or those we love.
Kate Katz is the owner and founder of All Hands In: A Soft Skills Development Company. To connect with her and learn more about All Hands In, please visit www.allhandsinworkshops.com.