Have you ever been with a group of people where the conversation — and the alcohol — are flowing so freely that you let your guard down for just a split second and something slips out of your mouth — something that you’d usually keep to yourself? Maybe it’s your honest opinion about your friend’s on-again-off-again relationship, or perhaps it’s your two cents on your cousin’s “struggle” with finding a “suitable” job. Nonetheless, you’ve offered up unsolicited, constructive feedback and you can’t take it back.
As soon as you realize what has happened, your face turns red, and you wish you could somehow control time with the push of a rewind button. But, before you start apologizing profusely, consider that maybe this comment was the reality check this person needed to hear. We’ve all been there — we get so wrapped up in ourselves and what’s going on in our lives that we can’t see how we’re engaging in behavior that does not reflect our intentions.
In other words, we could all use a healthy dose of external self-awareness from time to time. According to Dr. Tasha Eurich, organizational psychologist, researcher, and author of Insight, external self-awareness is the insight we gain by looking outward to understand how others see us. Unfortunately, we can’t do this by ourselves. We need to hear it from others, or else we risk a too-little-too-late moment (that borders on disaster or embarrassment). “We can get so comfortable in our safe, warm cocoon of delusion that we don’t even realize we’re in it,” says Eurich.
Hearing constructive feedback from others can help us take off the blinders of our own perspective and see how we move in the world a little more objectively. Keep in mind that the key word here, “others” is plural. Self-awareness is not just one truth, it’s a “complex interweaving” of our views with others’. (One person’s opinion shouldn’t override our self-image or control everything we do.) Instead, each person’s feedback should contribute to a rich, multidimensional kaleidoscope of perspectives, ultimately, helping on our path to personal growth.
Becoming a well-rounded person based on the collective opinions of others we trust sounds ideal, but let’s face it, it’s easier said than done. Research proves that people find it much easier to tell polite white lies than the cold, hard truth. This is especially true if they’re somehow invested in the situation, like if it’s your close friend telling you what they think about your first painting. They may not like it but they’ll tell you it’s great. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In order to survive, you wouldn’t want to rock the social apple cart and become ostracized from the group. So they just stay mum.
That’s not the only roadblock. Sometimes we humans, with our fragile egos, aren’t so good at handling criticism — no matter how constructive it is. Knowing we could do or be better can be an uncomfortable fact for us to face, so we turn our heads in ignorance. Thus ensues a cycle of hiding the truth and staying mired in our bad habits.
The trick to all of this? Find what Eurich calls a “loving critic,” or someone who is not afraid, to be honest, yet still has our best interests at heart. It’s easy to assume this person is someone like your significant other, but sometimes we need to look elsewhere. It can be a former colleague or a friend you wouldn’t consider to be your best friend. Look for someone you have a mutual level of trust with that is willing to be brutally honest, and also has a clear picture of the behavior you want critical feedback on and what success looks like in this situation.
Start by asking this person specific questions, as if you were a scientist conducting a study. “The more specific you are, the more seamless and successful the process will be for both you and your loving critics,” Eurich says. After finding out their thoughts and observations, focus on testing out one or two hypotheses at a time, like maybe letting others speak for the last half of the meeting if you’re told you’re too abrasive. But don’t try to transform yourself overnight. Baby steps, folks.
Finally, perhaps the most critical aspects of using external self-awareness for self-improvement are to remain patient and committed. Keep checking in with your loving critics (and also yourself!). Stay open to discoveries, conversations, and different paths, in order to set yourself up for future success.
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