Under the Association for Coaching (AC) Guidelines (Rev. June 2012), raising awareness in clients is one of twelve key competencies for coaching. So, what might constitute awareness, why is it important, and how might it be achieved?
According to the OED (n), awareness brings one into a state of consciousness (OED, n, b) which in turn requires obtaining facts and information regarding something about or internal to oneself.
Eurich (2018), organisational psychology and executive coach, suggests that self-awareness can be defined in many ways but basically, it boils down to either 1) internal awareness – or your own values, passions, strengths and weaknesses or (2) external awareness – or how others view you. Surprisingly, these two levels of awareness share nothing in common and unless you actively work to balance the two, it is likely that you will be deficient in one even if proficient in the other.
Consider Jeremiah, who, after coaching, was in touch with his own values, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses (Eurich,2018). As the result, he left a good career in accounting to pursue his passion for marketing only to discover that, unfortunately, his new employer did not view him as he viewed himself. For Jeremiah, things did not improve until he brought these two viewpoints in line.
For Eurich (2018), this demonstrates that internal awareness is only one possible truth and based on her research, coaches should focus (1) less on asking ‘why’ (the most popular coaching question) and (2) more on asking ‘what’. The reason being that while answering ‘why’, the client will likely reinforce his fears and insecurities (i.e. why wasn’t I able to turn things around?). But in answering ‘what’ (i.e. what do I need to do to move forward), he keeps his focus on finding future-oriented solutions (Eurich, 2018). Interestingly, this meets another AC coaching competency, that of maintaining forward momentum as well as an outcome-focused approach with clients.
Gourguechon (2017) suggests that self-awareness it is not a ‘clutch of soft skills like authenticity and compassion’, which can be achieved by meditation, journaling, or contemplation. Instead, self-awareness, or at least valuable self-awareness, is a ‘data-gathering and processing skill’ that can be taught and learned.
Hougaard, Carter, and Afton (2018) suggest that attaining self-awareness is worth the effort. It produces better results for executives than gaining an MBA. A study comparing the organizational performance of 440 top-flight CEO’s showed that performance-wise, MBA’s fared significantly worse than those without the degree. The proffered explanation was that hard skills such as taught in MBA programs will only get an executive so far.
The obvious question is what takes them that extra mile?
Consider the case of Vince who was convinced that he had done a great job as CEO because numbers-wise, he had turned the company around (Hougaard, Carter, and Afton, 2018). Vince was shocked however, when, during the 360-degree review process, he learned that the majority of employees, including his leadership team, believed him to be the source of significant corporate dissatisfaction. Vince learned that hard way that whatever his past accomplishments, he could not further his success until he developed enough awareness to understand why people no longer wished to work with him. Apparently, Vince is not the only one ripe for such realisations. One study showed that of those who believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% actually fit the criteria (Eurich, 2018). Interestingly, the more senior and experienced the leader, the more likely he or she is to overestimate his or her skills and abilities. There are many potential reasons for this, but the implications for coaches would seem to be better initial contracting to ensure the client knows the score. Research indicates the easier the client believes awareness is to achieve, the less likely he is to achieve it (Eurich, 2018).
Gourguechon (2017) further suggests that self-awareness only becomes useful when it transforms to self-knowledge, which in turn requires an honest evaluation of gathered facts and information. For example, identify certain recurring patterns which predictably provoke certain troublesome behaviours like losing your temper. Back-up – consider what happened and what you were feeling just before you blew your top – What might you do to reframe/reprogram your response to such situations/feelings in the future more in line with your conscious wishes?
Interestingly, research suggests that not all insights are of equal value (Longhurst (2006). To achieve transformational change, clients need more than understanding or even realisation. Instead they must experience an elusive ‘Aha’, or life-changing ‘road to Damascus’ moment. Because such experience is felt simultaneously on so many levels (somatic, emotional, as well as cognitive), it is almost akin to a religious experience. This research suggests that awareness gained by problem-solving is one thing, but that awareness gained by a more holistic illumination, is of a different order.
In summary, awareness for coaching clients requires obtaining and honestly analysing facts and information allowing him or her not only to become conscious of his own values, passions, strengths and weaknesses but also of how others view him. Awareness is important not the least because it has been shown to foster and support real and measurable success, especially for executives. Finally, although awareness may be achieved through a variety of approaches, it requires more than just polishing up traditional soft-skills. Instead achieving useful awareness requires (1) developing data gathering and processing skills that may unearth some potentially difficult to digest feedback as well as (2) even some more holistically inspired moments of life-changing realisation.
Eurich, T. (2018). “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)’, Harvard Business Review Digital Article, 1/04/2018, pp. 1-11.
Gourguechon, P. (2017) ‘The Unexamined Mind Doesn’t Think well: Why Self-Awareness Is A Fundamental Leadership Capacity’. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2017/09/19/the-unexamined-mind-doesnt-think-well-why-self-awareness-is-a-fundamental-leadership-capacity/#1689b32c455c, (Accessed: 16 March 2018).
Hougaard, R., Carter, J. and Afton, M. (2018) ‘Self-Awareness Can Help Leaders More Than an MBA Can’, Harvard Business Review Digital Article, 1/12/2018, pp. 2-5.
Longhurst, L. (2006). ‘The Aha Moment in Co-Active Coaching and its Effects on Belief and Behavioural Changes’. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 4(2), pp. 61 – 73.