Stop, look, and listen

Article contributed by Amy Sargent.

I’ll never forget the lesson I learned from little five-year-old Marta. As if her sparkling brown eyes, quick smile, and cheeky, baby-like face weren’t enough to win me over–because they were. But it was a competency of emotional intelligence she possessed, which, without a word, made her one of the brightest kids in the classroom.

Wisdom of a child

In the inner city school where I was teaching, standardized assessment scores were low, graduation rates were astonishingly poor, and for most students, English was the second language. Marta arrived the first day of kindergarten equipped with a backpack, hair neatly braided, wearing clean, pressed clothes, with a smile so bright you couldn’t help but beam back. It was obvious that she was well taken care of at home. However my co-teacher informed me that she didn’t speak a word of English, nor did her grandparents, who were her caretakers.  “Good luck with that!”, she said with a hint of disdain.

I made efforts toward effective communication with Marta, even though at first I could tell she didn’t understand a word I said. I used a lot of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. However, Marta didn’t miss a beat. She was earnest and intentional. Before she’d take any action, she’d stop, look around her, and listen with riveting concentration. I could see her studying my face when I spoke, was quick to nod though I could tell she didn’t fully understand, and flashed her bright smile whenever I grinned. She constantly watched the kids around her: in the morning as they put their coats away, at her table group as they worked on their papers, and in the afternoons during story time, always following along just a step behind, mimicking their behavior. She seemed tuned-into the difference between the children who behaved well, and those who did not, and readily emulated the actions of those who made good choices. She was a quick learner.

Marta, I came to learn later, demonstrated an incredible amount of situational awareness. Within weeks, her comprehension of English, both verbal and written, progressed at astonishing speeds. By the end of the year, you never would have guessed that it was not her first language, except for some pronunciation variances which she adeptly picked up from her grandmother’s strong, accent-laden diction at home. Her ability to tune into what was going around her had a direct impact on her success as a student.

What is situational awareness?

Situational awareness is a competency of emotional intelligence and one which is effective in determining our ability to influence and lead others well. It’s the ability to read social cues, pick up on political currents, and determine norms in family, social, and business gatherings. Those who are good at it are able to detect crucial social networks and understand the political forces at work. They can accurately pick up on the guiding values and unspoken rules which are in play, and are able to make use of formal and informal dynamics.

Those who struggle with situational awareness can sometimes find it difficult to get things done in various social settings, and can be caught off guard when social and political situations arise, whether it be at home or in the workplace. They can be offensive without realizing it and unwittingly act in ways which are inappropriate. They miss on being aware of the emotions of those around them and can find many social situations (and the people involved) frustrating.

Unaware, unsafe.

Not being aware of what’s going on around us can get us into trouble. For most workplaces, a lack of situational awareness can lead to potentially dangerous situations. In the world of aviation, for example, staying aware of surroundings can be the very thing which helps avoid system failures and crashes.  “One of the greatest risks a pilot has when faced with a problem is that the pilot is simply not aware a problem exists. Loss of situational awareness is like the boogieman sneaking up behind you—danger is imminent, but you are pleasantly unaware of it.”  [http://langleyflyingschool.com/Pages/Human%20Factor–Loss%20of%20Situational%20Awareness.html]  In the construction industry, situational awareness is equally important. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor reported that fatal injury rates among construction workers was almost three times that of all occupations.  In a white paper distributed by workzonesafety.org, it was noted that, “Loss of situational awareness undoubtedly contributed to many of these worker accidents. Situational awareness is a worker’s ability to capture cues and clues from what is happening around them, then being able to put them together to mean something, and predicting future events, especially potential risks/threats.”

Distracted drivers – a lack of situational awareness

Cell phone use is proving to be a large contributor to our inability to remain conscious of our physical surroundings, no matter how good we think we are at multitasking.  It’s known that multitasking impairs performance. Studies have shown that even just listening to words being spoken on a cell phone decreases brain availability for other tasks by 37%. [https://www.workzonesafety.org/files/documents/worker_distraction/fatigue_e-device-use.pdf] At any given point in a day, approximately 660,000 drivers are attempting to use their phones while driving. In 2017, the National Safety Council reported that “cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year. Nearly 390,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving, and one out of every four car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving.”https://www.edgarsnyder.com/car-accident/cause-of-accident/cell-phone/cell-phone-statistics.html]

On the home front

While not honing your situational awareness can prove to be life-threatening, in our home lives, missing on the dynamics of what is going on around you can be detrimental to building strong, healthy relationships. Take the all-too-typical example of an overworked parent who is too busy to notice his kids are showing signs of going down a ‘bad’ path, whether it be skipping classes, lying, stealing, cheating, illegal drug use, etc.  By not being alert and tuning into what is going on in his teenager’s day-to-day, negative habits can quickly form and leave the parent feeling blindsided. “He was such a sweet boy,” the dad will lament, shaking his head sadly remembering when his child was six. But he’s not six anymore — he’s 16 and somewhere, 10 vital years had passed without the parent picking up on the signs of change and being aware — and assertive — enough to respond in a way that encourages the connection kids so long for. In extreme cases, where one or more of the parents is narcissistic (tuning into self and missing on reading and responding to the emotional cues of others), “clinical experience and research show that adult children of narcissists have a difficult time putting their finger on what is wrong…filled with unacknowledged anger, feel like a hollow person, feel inadequate and defective, suffer from periodic anxiety and depression, and have no clue about how he or she got that way.” —Pressman and Pressman, The Narcissistic Family [https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201105/the-narcissistic-family-tree]

Office politics and situational awareness

At the office, a lack of situational awareness can take on the form of office politics, a word that most consider ‘dirty’. However, engaging in the goings on at the office actually can have an advantage. In a Forbes.com article, Bonnie Marcus writes that a “lack of attention to what’s happening in the workplace can be extremely dangerous.” After being passed over for a promotion she felt she rightly deserved, she noted, “I didn’t pay attention to what was going on in my company. I avoided office politics and was therefore totally ignorant about how the decision for that VP job would be made. And what’s worse, I  failed to nurture important relationships with the people in corporate who had power and influence over my career.” [https://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2017/04/04/what-i-learned-about-office-politics-that-changed-my-career/#393293266168]. In a study done by Jo Miller, founding editor of Women’s Leadership Coaching., Inc., where she asked 169 employees how they handled office politics, she found that “20% said they try to ignore it, and 61% said they play the game reluctantly and only “when necessary.”” In her article, she quotes Nina Simosko, a leader in technology strategy at Nike, Inc., who says, “When it comes to office politics, there is no way around it. Once you start working with a team you are going to experience it. I am not a fan of politics, but I have learned that ignoring them can have negative consequences. It can determine whether you are successful in your career or not.”[https://www.themuse.com/advice/why-avoiding-office-politics-could-hurt-you-more-than-you-know]. In another article, Jo writes, “An author and careers expert, Erin Burt notes, “Avoiding (office) politics altogether can be deadly for your career. Every workplace has an intricate system of power, and you can — and should — work it ethically to your best advantage.”[https://beleaderly.com/cant-afford-ignore-office-politics/]

It begins with self-awareness

So how do we develop this vital competency of emotional intelligence?  Situational awareness begin with self-awareness, as well-stated, here:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” –Richard Feynman

In order to be aware of what’s going on around us, it’s vital we tune in to our own emotions throughout the day and allow them to provide insightful information into how we’re doing.  Try it right now — how are you feeling? Can you put a word to it? Can you trace its origins (why are you feeling that way)? Can you–in the moment–recognize you are feeling that particular emotion and then, choose to manage your behavior in a way that is mindful of that emotion?  Easier said than done, but it can be done.  If you struggle in this area of self-awareness, consider employing a social + emotional intelligence coach to walk alongside you to offer some help.

Tips to improve your situational awareness

Try following these 3 tips to increase your situational awareness.

Stop. Many of us move in a frenzied cacophony of activity, one crisis spawning the next, and rarely take time to slow down, let alone stop and take notice of our surroundings. Set a value of paying attention to what is going on in your social and work settings. If needed, set an alarm to sound throughout your day to remind yourself to stop what you’re doing, for the simple purpose of tuning in to what is going on around you. In that moment, breathe. Notice the details that you may have missed without this much-needed break. How are you feeling?  Why are you feeling that way? How are those around you feeling?  Why are they feeling that way? Attempt to connect the dots — does what you see happening around you make sense? Does it “fit” into the context of the moment and feel “right”? Knowing the history and political currents of your environment can help you answers these questions.

Look. Have you ever talked with someone, only to realize later that you never really looked at them? Maybe you were in a conversation while scrolling on your phone, or answered their questions without looking up from your computer screen. It’s a good practice to develop your ability to see what is going on around you. Make a point to look people in the eyes when they’re speaking. Try to read the emotional cues they may be offering — or hiding.  Now look around, beyond that person. Notice who is in the room and what they’re doing, and how they’re interacting with others. Notice what has changed in the last few hours while you were preoccupied and determine why it has changed.

Listen. We can learn so much from others if we’d just up our listening skills. The people in our lives can clue us in on what’s happening, below the surface. Learn to ask open-ended questions, and try to remember some of the personal details they may share. Not good with names? Jot them down if needed, along with their unique identifiers (she loves cats, he has 3 kids, etc.), so you can refer to them the next time you chat. Questions like, “How are you really doing?”, “How did you feel when that happened?”, “Why do you think that occurred?”, and “What were you most proud of in that moment?” are a few examples of questions which can take your conversations a little deeper. Tune in as they describe people or situations they found to be effective–or ineffective. Invite them to coffee, or lunch, and learn how they operate, what their values are, and what their hopes and dreams may be. By doing so, you’ll be able to identify the characteristic and behaviors of individuals are successful within the organization.

What Marta taught me was that no matter our hurdles, we can choose to learn from those around us to become more situationally aware. In doing so, we’ll not only help protect ourselves from potential pitfalls of being unaware, but enable our ability to learn and grow as we move toward success.

“Every human has four endowments – self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom… The power to choose, to respond, to change.”  — Stephen Covey

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