Tune in to your surroundings.

Throughout Volume II of CareerU, we have discussed how to build a repertoire of soft skills, focusing primarily on aspects that are personal and internal to you. In this piece, we will look outside of ourselves to what is going on around us. Understanding your own actions and how they affect others is an important skill to build. It takes practice (and plenty of mistakes) to develop a keen sense of how the words you say and the things you do affect others. Conquering this soft skill will help ensure your actions contribute to positive interactions with others.

Understanding Situational Queues

The first step to building your level of self-awareness is to understand where you are and what kind of situation you are in. Are in you in a classroom? At the office? At the park with friends on the weekend? These are easy questions to answer: you simply look around and note your surroundings. But how about these situations: a coffee with a colleague outside of the office; dinner with an old boss; bumping in to a professor on campus? All of these situations have a “casual context” to them, yet the person you are with is someone who you usually see in a more formal professional or educational setting. It is easy to want to loosen up and say things that you might say to a friend. While the setting may be casual, the relationship you have may not be. Even as you deepen a relationship, especially one that is professional, you should always air on the side of caution. Talking about your social life, mentioning negative feelings about a classmate or colleague, or discussing your romantic relationships are topics you may want to avoid discussing in more formal settings, especially if you do not know the person well.

Remember that every relationship you have is unique. Talking about a fun weekend may be a perfectly appropriate conversation topic with one coworker, but not with another. Your boss at work may be more open to discussing what are considered “personal” topics than your professor might, and vice versa. The key is to know your audience and be able to take the temperature of a situation quickly. You may get invitation to share those more personal details, such as “How long have you been dating your significant other?” or the more open-ended question of “How was your weekend?” Your answer to a classmate or coworker who you have a strong friendship with is likely going to be more detailed than your answer to your boss or a professor.

As you gain more experience in these situations and as your interpersonal relationships grow, you will begin to realize what works and what does not. The more you know about the person you are speaking to, and the more you observe that person’s behavior, the better you will be at identifying social boundaries and having positive and appropriate interactions with those around you.

It’s All in The Delivery

A lot of being self-aware is in the delivery. How you speak – your words, your tone, and your body language – are all extremely important, and can be the difference between a positive interaction and a negative one. You may have good ideas or are raising important questions, but if your delivery is off, your points will not be heard.

Let’s look at an example: Sarah is a successful sales representative at a software company. She is among the top ten sales producers at the company. Despite her success, she is frustrated by the new policies and guidelines that were recently implemented. Sarah approaches her boss and tells her what she does not like about a new policy on reporting her sales progress. “I don’t want to fill out the numbers for this report. I don’t even understand why we need to do this. It’s a big waste of time.” Sarah’s boss becomes defensive and tries to explain the reasoning, only to have Sarah speak over her about the numerous other complaints she has about the new policies. They both leave the conversation with a feeling of frustration and without a solution.

Sarah may in fact have a good point about the new policies. However, using an angry tone of voice never delivers positive results. In this situation, Sarah is lacking some serious self-awareness. Not only is she openly on the attack about the company she works for, she is also striking a negative tone towards her boss who ultimately makes the decisions about whether she is employed or not.

So, how would someone with more self-awareness approach the same situation?

Jane is also a top sales producer at the company. Like Sarah, she is not entirely happy with the company’s new policies, and shares Sarah’s concern that many policies are not a good use of her time. Jane would like to discuss her concerns further with her boss. Before doing so, she makes a list of things she feels are not working well and solutions for fixing them, along with how she might help. Jane then schedules time to sit down with her boss. In the meeting, Jane begins by sharing a recent success regarding a new client, and thanks her boss for allowing her to take the lead and being a strong resource. After this positive statement, Jane brings up her concerns about the new policies. She shares a list of the issues she feels are most pressing, and presents recommendations for solutions to each. Her boss listens intently, thanks her for bringing this to her attention, and tells Jane she will present her ideas to the company’s senior leadership.

Sarah and Jane’s concerns were the same, but Sarah’s delivery missed the mark, and she was unable to come away with a solution. By delivering her message in a way that is both non-confrontational and solutions-oriented, Jane was able to have a positive and constructive interaction that could lead to real change, and also continued to build a positive relationship with her boss.

When In Doubt, Look Around

Building self-awareness is centered around understanding your surroundings. Always observe what is going on around you first, and always stay aware and observant by noting your audience’s body language, tone of voice, and conversations. The easiest and most effective way to do so is to listen more than you speak. I promise that if you listen to your audience first, you will be able to understand what is appropriate to say and do, and what is not. You can then set mental boundaries on the words you say and the actions you take. By doing so, I have no doubt you can master the art of self-awareness.

About Ryan Marcus
Originally from Annapolis, MD, Ryan Marcus graduated in 2011 from Wheaton College in Massachusetts with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. He made his way to New York City in 2011, working as a consultant at Valeocon Management Consulting. In 2016, Ryan joined the recruiting and staffing agency ForceBrands as an Executive Recruiter, where he specializes in the wine and spirits industry and manages the entire hiring process for his clients.

Ryan has been involved with Let’s Get Ready since his move to New York City in 2011. He is a regular volunteer at events such as Career Day and College Application Completion Day, and is active in Let’s Get Ready’s Young Professionals Network. Ryan has been writing the CareerU with Ryan series since July of 2015.

About the CareerU with Ryan Series
Written by community volunteer Ryan Marcus, CareerU with Ryan, Volume II is a career advice article series guiding Let’s Get Ready students in college develop soft skills key to succeeding in their career and life. It is a follow-up series to CareerU with Ryan, Volume I, which focused on the skill set needed to land an internship/job. Volume I is currently available to Let’s Get Ready college students and graduates only. Students can access all ten articles in Volume I by joining the Let’s Get Ready LinkedIn Group, a career resource exclusively for our college students.