What does it mean to be self-aware, “aware of self?” The notion connotes a stepping back and seeing ourselves with a more objective, rational light, a steady gaze at ourselves a full-length mirror rather than a mere quick glance. It’s the stuff of first or more likely second dates – So tell me about you, what you are like — where you try not to just talk about what you like, but try and summarize your personality. It’s an ability to be slow down, be reflective, all very different from the reactive stance that fills up most of our days, where we’re mentally and emotionally putting out fires and not stepping back at all.
But it’s possible to be both responsive in the moment and self-aware — an everyday self-awareness. In teaching students to be therapists one of the skill-sets that is talked about is The Third Ear. The Third Ear is the ability to periodically, and ideally simultaneously, step back from all the content that is unfolding — the story and facts, for example, that a client laying out in the course of a conversation — and instead checking the pulse of what of what is happening right there in the room — the client’s emotions, the therapist’s own reactions, the overall emotional climate, the ability to see if the client and therapist are mentally and emotionally in lockstep. Here the therapist notices subtle signs that the client is becoming upset, or that she is rambling on and the client is glazing over, or that her suggestion just fell by the wayside and didn’t have the impact she hoped for. It’s a difficult skill to learn; it’s all too easy to get caught up in the story instead.
But cultivating a Third Ear is not just good for therapists. It’s helpful for the rest of us as well, to not only manage our own emotions but also be aware of and change the climate of any conversation. Here are some examples of everyday self-awareness:
When you start to feel anxious, can you usually be aware of what you are thinking about?
When you start to get “upset” can you tell you are getting upset?
When you are in bad mood, can you tell, and are you able to pinpoint the source — that you’re worried about something, you’re tired or hungry, etc.? Can you responsibly let others know, rather than simply spraying your irritation around?
Can you tell when the person you’re talking to is beginning to get upset? Can you say something to help lower the temperature?
Can you tell when a conversation is going off the rails — either that you are going off-topic or getting defensive and not listening?
Can you tell when you are holding back — not saying no or pushing back when you want to, not being honest? Do you know what is holding you back?
If any of these are difficult for you, you may want to hone your skills. Here are some ways to get started:
Notice other people’s conversations
Two of your friends talking at work while you stay on the sidelines; watching a couple talking at a restaurant: Watch the interaction, see if you can tell when one person is getting upset or has stopped listening or the emotions are rising. By tuning in you attune to the unfolding micro-process.
Slow down your own conversations
Even before you start a conversation, tell yourself to deliberately slow down and shift your awareness to notice the non-verbal cues, your own emotions, whether the conversation is going off-track. Then do it. Consciously take several deep breaths every few minutes to help you slow down.
Check in with yourself
Do this every hour just to see what your mood is, notice how it is changing. This will help you become more aware of subtle shifts. Do this same check-in at the start of the day before you get out of bed, when you are coming home from work. These are crucial times to gauge your mood — they set the pace of the next several hours.
Broadcast your emotions
Let others know how you feel when your feelings are going south. You don’t need to have a discussion about it, you don’t need to explain, just say you’re getting irritable, tired. Better yet say how the other person can help — leave you alone, give you a hug, etc.
Practice speaking up when you find yourself holding back
Obviously, you first need to practice recognizing when you are holding back which starts with being aware of how you are feeling in the moment. Even if it is difficult to speak up in the moment, that’s fine, just circle back and say it later when you figured out how you feel. If speaking is too difficult, write down your feelings, pass it on to the other person and then follow up with a conversation. With practice you will be both more aware of your feelings in the moment, and more self-confident to speak up sooner.
This should get you started. Again, it’s about skill, not personality. It’s about practice not pressure.
Develop that Third Ear.