Self awareness - The first soft skill

adminguy's picture
Posted August 26th, 2015 by adminguy



Software developers are often encouraged to cultivate soft skills. Coding, we are told, is only half the problem. To be effective at work we also have to be effective team players, good at communicate ideas, adept at understand customer requirements, and be able to manage the stress of hard deadlines. From a more personal standpoint, cultivating negotiation skills are important to get the next raise, and learning how to maintain a good work-life balance will ensure that we are present to all aspects of our life. However, very often, these skills are built on a shaky foundation. That foundation is self awareness. it's not possible to learn any of these skills effectively until we truly understand ourselves.

It is becoming a widely held belief that good communication is more about good listening than smart talking. But can we listen well if we don't even know ourselves? I like the way this article puts it:
Self-awareness allows for a listening that is free of assumptions and judgments that compromise a healthy communication. Before we are able to listen deeply to others, we need to learn how to listen deeply to ourselves. It is this self-awareness that helps us to understand the other’s frame of reference.
Self awareness begins with understanding our strengths and weaknesses, but that's not the entirety of what self awareness means. Self awareness is also about understanding our patterns, our natural way of functioning, what makes us tick, what causes our buttons to be pressed. It's about understanding our deepest motivators and the subconscious assumptions from which our decisions flow. It's about understanding whether we are introverted or extroverted, how we see the world, and how we receive information. It's only on the foundation of such understanding that any personal development into soft skills can really blossom. 
Many tools and practices exist which can help us understand ourselves better. Out of these, certain psychometric tests, and the simple act of journaling are anecdotally seen to be most effective.
Tests for self awareness
There are many tests that can help us get a better understanding of our personality. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is one the the most popular test, but its alternatives are also fairly popular. These tests clusters people into personality types and offer a narrative to further understand that cluster. 
Even though experts are divided about the effectiveness of personality tests, I think there is real value in them. But we need to understand the strengths and shortcomings of such tests. Taking a test as a catch-all solution to all your problems is asking for trouble. These tests have definite limitations, but at the same time they also have much to offer. The effectiveness depends much on your attitude and intention towards the test and the result. According to Robert Kaplan and Dennis Saccuzzo:
the underlying assumption of the MBTI is that we all have specific preferences in the way we construe our experiences, and these preferences underlie our interests, needs, values, and motivation.
These tests divide the human personality along various characteristics. The result shows us how much or how little of these characteristics we exhibit in our behavior. They divide the human population into clusters and show the common behavioral and cognitive tendencies of such clusters. The MBTI divides human personality along four continuum: Extraversion/Introversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, and finally Judging/Perceiving. Understanding where we lie on the continuum can help us discover a lot about ourselves, our motivators, stressors, patterns of reaction, even careers and roles that will lead to a fulfilling life, our strengths, blind spots, weaknesses, etc.
These tests deliver great results when they are used as a tool for understanding ourselves as well as others. They reveal characteristics about ourselves which we may not be aware of. They also reveal trends of behavior. Taken together they help us appreciate our uniqueness and strengths, improve upon weaknesses and gain a better understanding of how other people - those who are different from us - function and see the world. This sort of information is very valuable because it leads to greater self awareness, respect for different types of people. and an opportunity to improve our own blind spots. 
However, an important thing to remember when using these tests is not to pigeonhole yourself or other people based on the result. The result can vary depending on several factors like your mood while taking the test, recent experiences, as well as past life experiences. Using the test as a subjective means of self exploration and understanding will yield the best result.
Here's what some users in an Internet discussion thread say about how the Myers Briggs test helped them:
In many ways it was like reading my biography. It helped me feel a little less awkward in my own skin.  It helped me come to terms with some of the things I did/felt/thought and helped me soften some of my edges.   And that last bit about softening some edges is ultimately the best thing researching my personality type did for me because I was able to take a hard look at myself and work to avoid some of the most common mistakes made by INTPs in relationships. [Ref]
Your PCI results (which tell you how clear your preference results are) are used as a guide to help verify your innate personality type. During this process many individuals identify where and to what extent they tend to step "out of preference", leading to many "aha moments". It is not unusual for people to identify their innate personality type and then realize that their job or social environment pushes them to operate from a different mode (for example a natural ISFP tries to adapt to a ISTJ favoring environment) and starts to see why they are miserable in their situation or job. In other situations individuals find how their personality type helps in their work or home life scenarios. It can be quite fascinating to explore if armed with the right information. [Ref]
As we have seen, self awareness is all about understanding ourself. Third party tests can give useful and often startling insights, but that should not be the only source of insights. There is a lot to be learned by introspection - reflecting and noting how we react in different situations and why we do so. 
Nowadays, we live so much of our lives in auto-mode. We are constantly busy responding to social media streams, answering emails, filling timesheets and what not. For most people in the modern world, there's hardly any time left to self-reflect. It's no surprise that we don't understand ourselves well enough. In such a situation the simple act of daily journaling can be a wonderful tool of self discovery.
Many famous people have maintained a journal which has served them as a tool to increase self awarenessamong other things. Journaling is also enjoyable and de-stressing as an activity. You can use a tool like Evernote to store your notes, or if you prefer something simpler, a Word or Open Office document will work just as fine. Ultimately journaling is about reflecting, recording, reviewing and learning. Store your entries in whatever media works out best (including paper diaries), and don't forget to review them often for maximum benefit.
As I mentioned in the beginning, it's a rare software developer who has not been exposed to the benefits of soft skills training. Those of you who work in a corporate might be encouraged to attend soft-skills workshops and participate in psychometric tests. On the other hand if you work for a startup or are self employed then your exposure to soft skills might come primarily through reading or online courses. Either ways, you will gain a lot more from your efforts if you begin with a solid foundation of self awareness.