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Self-Awareness and Healthy Relationships: Foundation for Success

Success in projects, organizations, and life, in general, relies on the ability to build and maintain healthy, effective relationships.

Healthy relationships satisfy the needs to be happy, acknowledged and effective. Healthy relationships rely on the emotional and social intelligence of the people involved. These rely on self-awareness.

Healthy relationships

Relationships are interactions among two or more people, ideas, concepts, or inanimate objects. We can expand that definition to include one’s relationship with oneself, for example knowing the difference between one’s internal feelings and one’s social face, and having the internal dialog that explores one’s values, etc.

Here we will focus on interpersonal work relationships, particularly in the context of projects and organizations.

What is a healthy relationship? It is one in which there is mutual respect, caring and trust based on truthfulness. In most cases, the parties are happy to be in a relationship with one another, though even when this is not the case, there is sufficient respect and openness to be able to effectively work together. Healthy relationships are open to diverse ideas as well as racial or ethnic diversity. There is candid communication.

In the project context, the relationship must be productive to be entirely healthy. In other words, the participants need to get work done. This implies that criticism based on values and quality criteria is a necessary part of healthy relationships. For example, when a project team member is not performing well or being disruptive, a healthy relationship would enable candidly addressing the issue. In the extreme, a healthy relationship might support the removal of a person from the team. in other words, healthy relationships are subject to ending when they turn incurably dysfunctional.

Healthy interpersonal relationships at work are important because projects are performed by groups of people. When relationships are healthy there is a synergy that transforms the individuals into an optimally performing team. Healthy relationships satisfy the need for belonging and esteem. They tend to eliminate unnecessary conflict and make the unavoidable conflict productive. People who are happy and have satisfying relationships with coworkers will generally work more effectively than those who experience abusive or otherwise dissatisfying relationships.

Building Healthy Relationships

Healthy relationships can naturally occur. Maybe you have experienced a team in which everyone gelled with everyone else. Communication was clear and open, people were accepting and caring, work seemed to get done effortlessly.

However, it is more likely that healthy relationships must be cultivated and maintained. This is particularly true given that in many cases the selection of stakeholders is not open to the team members’ or the project manager’s discretion. The project must make the best of the stakeholder mix, as it is.

It is highly effective for an organization or team to consciously and explicitly discuss and agree upon the definition and importance of healthy relationships. Depending on the environment, team meetings, training or consulting may be called for to avoid and address dysfunction.

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Emotional and Social Intelligence

Cultivating healthy relationships relies on the use of emotional and social intelligence. These reflect the ability to manage one’s feelings to ensure that behaviors are subject to choice rather than driven by emotions. They include the ability to appreciate the feelings of others and respond effectively to them.

Healthy relationships make sure that a controversy over some project related performance issue is handled candidly, amicably, and with an attempt at a win-win outcome that better informs the participants, rather than a yelling match or withdrawal and passive-aggressive behavior.


Self-awareness is the foundation for the ability to regulate behavior, speech, thoughts and emotions. It is also the foundation for the empathy and compassion that underlie social intelligence. These are fundamental to the ability to communicate and collaborate with others in a way that promotes healthy relationships.

Psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund’s proposed that: “when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.” Daniel Goleman defined self-awareness as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources and intuitions”.

Self-awareness begins with the ability to listen to the body. “The body’s response lets us know how we feel.” . The bodily sensations like tightening muscles, queasy stomach, trembling, smiling, being choked-up are messages. Awareness of bodily sensations is important because these sensations signal emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear and anger before they reach the level of intensity that results in reactive behavior. Listening to the body enables self-regulation.

Self-awareness implies the ability to recognize when attention is focused internally or externally. For example, when you are in conflict or giving constructive criticism are you focused on your feelings to the degree that you are not paying attention to the subtle signals coming from the other person’s body language?

Are you making the relationship a ‘we’ or is it ‘you and me’?

Self-awareness also implies that a person is conscious of his/her preferences and values and the way those effect behavior. For example, the volatile boss who yells at subordinates may be well aware of his/her feelings while not valuing kind, respectful speech. Such a person may believe that verbal abuse is an acceptable way to motivate improved performance.

The degree to which people are self-aware varies from individual to individual. Self-awareness can be cultivated and increased using mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy among other techniques. These techniques train the individual to pay attention to the thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, and concepts and the way they impact behavior. By paying attention to these, the individual can be more likely to be responsive rather than reactive.

Taking It Home

The bottom-line is to make use of the understanding that healthy relationships are critical to success and that they are enabled by self-awareness. As an individual, each of us can cultivate the self-awareness and values that support the ability to regulate one’s emotions and behavior and work well with others.

Even when there is recognition of their importance, there is often a degree of resistance to cultivating self-awareness and applying the communication and collaboration skills that are necessary for healthy relationships. To some, these “soft-skills” are not taken seriously and are found to be too subjective to be applied in a meaningful way. This attitude must be directly addressed. Leadership must promote the cultivation of healthy relationships.

From an organizational perspective, it is important that management and staff be educated regarding the importance of healthy relationships. They must value the degree to which healthy relationships contribute to effective performance and communicate those values. This valuing is evidenced in the form of programs to improve relationships, including long-term, regular follow-up embedded into the organizations normal operations. This includes some measurable way to assess the relationship skills and behaviors as part of performance evaluation.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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