Mirror, mirror on the wall


In addition to my day job, I am also the mother to three wonderful kids. One of the fun things about being a parent is the different lens they offer me for thinking about human characteristics and capacities and how they shape our experiences and effectiveness. For example, if you show my four-month-old daughter a mirror, she just sees lights and shifting shapes – no awareness that it is “her” in the reflection. If you show my three-year-old son a mirror, he says “hey, that’s me!” But if you show my almost-six-year-old a mirror, he will preen and try on various persona. In a similar vein, my daughter has no conception yet that she and I are distinct beings; my middle son understands this but doesn’t appreciate that my perspective of him might differ from his own; my eldest can consciously observe both me and himself and then manipulate his behavior to influence my perceptions. Self-awareness, self-monitoring, and impression management behaviors are learned and developed. Even adults have varying levels of these skills. I have unfortunately seen too many people run aground, not because of lack of talent, but because they lack these basic building blocks of social effectiveness. We have all known people who just weren’t coming across the way they wanted. The peer in another department who comes off as cold and condescending may inadvertently be projecting arrogance in an attempt to cover up a lack of confidence. The coworker who everyone sees as smarmy and obnoxious probably thinks he seems witty and engaging. Sometimes the self we project does not match the version we see in our internal “mirror,” which can have disastrous consequences for careers and reputations.

Awareness, of both ourselves and others, serves as the foundation of these skills. I think most of the time people block out this information because it is threatening – what does it mean if there is dissonance between how I want to be seen and how I actually am seen by others? But without critical self-observation and external feedback, we have no way of knowing whether and how our self-perceptions are off, when what we believe about ourselves, or what we believe we project to other people, is not what we think it is. Other awareness gives us insight into how they are responding to us and how it jibes with how we want to be seen so that we can adapt our behavior to influence others’ perceptions of us. Perhaps this seems inauthentic. Maybe you think “I yam what I yam” and expect others to take you as you are. As with most things, balance is key. We shouldn’t strive to become such effective social chameleons that we act a part with every person we meet – it’s all about effectiveness and intent. If my “direct and forthright communication style” is another person’s “brusque, aggressive communication style” it would be helpful for us both if I could learn to moderate the way I communicate. If your extraversion overwhelms others, it is compassionate, not dishonest, to learn to dial it down a notch among the more introverted.

Some of the recommendations we offer people who are working on their interpersonal or presentation skills are, “match your delivery to the message” (e.g., if you are delivering bad news and want people to respond calmly, speak calmly; if you want people to be excited, show excitement) and “match your energy to that of the audience” (i.e., find a middle ground between your energy and the audience to create simpatico between you). Both recommendations require that you be aware of your behavior and how others are responding to it. I recently considered these recommendations in light of research on mirror neurons, which provide the social structure of our brain and serve as the foundation empathy. When we observe others, these neurons fire and give us a micro-experience of what others are doing and feeling, which allows us to understand others’ experiences and reactions. Our very brains are wired to support social cohesion. Your task is to remove the filters and blinders that prevent you from seeing clearly.

Two paths to awareness are body awareness and meta-cognition. If you feel tense or angry, you communicate it loudly to others through a clenched jaw or hands. If you feel ill at ease or unconfident, that will be communicated as well, through closed-off postures and nervous gestures. Practicing doing a “body scan” can help you understand how you are seen from the outside. The ability to observe and think about your own thinking is can also be developed. Pay attention to the thoughts skirting along the surface of your consciousness. Test them – are they really true? What if the opposite thought were true – how would you feel then? Awareness of your thoughts helps you get in charge of your feelings. Ultimately, it is the content of the mind that fuels feelings, thereby animating our bodies and determining our impact.

What is the impact you want to make? Who are you and who do you want to be? As we have seen before, the answers to these questions are inextricably linked – you can shape who you become by how you behave, in effect “faking it ’til you make it.” Developing and projecting positivity, courage and conviction, and emotional control effectively demonstrates to others that you are a likeable and worthy person to follow.  Effective leaders and managers use self-awareness and interpersonal insight to manage the impressions others have of them, and through this, achieve their influence.