Self-Awareness and The Johari Window

Self-awareness involves thinking about yourself, other people, and all the messages and emotions that are being transmitted. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not a skill or habit most of us use. But all the knowledge in the world won’t be useful if you think you are using it but lack the awareness to know otherwise.

The Johari Window is our first tool for self-awareness. It acknowledges that in any interaction there are four zones of self-awareness we can possess: open, blind, hidden, and unknown. Often, we think we are on the same page and speaking openly, yet you yourself possess a blind spot. Other times, you are hiding information from others, giving them a blind spot, and sometimes neither of you possess the important or necessary information. These all cause conflict, tension, and the appearance of dishonesty and manipulation. True self-awareness often lies beneath various psychological layers, but it is necessary for true communication that makes people feel safe and open.

We now turn to an essential part of interactions and people skills: the art of self-awareness.

For most of us, this is the missing element of our toolbox for people skills. We might understand that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, empty our heads to listen to them properly, and also avoid shallow small talk. Basically, everything from the prior chapters. And yet we could have no understanding that we are not doing what we think we are doing.

It’s a slightly scary thought that we can’t really trust our own judgment, but it’s the reality in many aspects of life. That’s why things like confirmation bias exist—indeed, all cognitive biases are a result of our lack of objectivity when it comes to our own thoughts. In the context of people skills, this is especially so because we all have a different and personal opinion of what is funny, what is charming, and what is even enjoyable. We lack the self-awareness that perspectives other than our own exist, and so often this causes simple misunderstandings and offenses. We can’t control the level of awareness that other people have, but we can control ours.

The first section of this chapter is a deeper dive into self-awareness and understanding what we don’t know and how it affects our interactions.
The Johari Window

In 1955, Joseph Luften and Harry Ingham invented the Johari Window. The Johari Window lets you understand the various levels of self-awareness and self-understanding people possess in interaction and how they can affect other people. Most importantly, it describe what happens in ways that you may not have thought about before.

It has four quadrants that display whether an action is only known to the actor, only known to others, known to the actor and everyone else involved, or known to no one. Examples will make this clearly illustrated shortly. Understanding this chart can help you understand the dynamics of interactions, making it easier to clear up your own blind spots and encourage others to open up and see their own blind spots. You can begin to get a sense for why interactions unfold the way they do and what you can do to fix it and grow self-awareness. These things are all integral to people skills, as they can give you a view of what is happening underneath the actual words that are being said.

The diagram above gives a clear illustration of the type of blindness we are actually operating within every day. You can see that 50% is devoted to what we are unaware of. Yes, this means 50% of what we say possibly has elements of ignorance. If you speak about a blind spot, others will see you as uninformed and rash. The Johari Window lays out a blueprint for examining the unspoken parts of a conversation and your role in it.

Open Space: Everybody Knows

In this quadrant, everyone knows what’s going on, which makes communicating about those things easy. No one’s confused, and any denial that exists will be about the implications of a behavior rather than the behavior itself. For example, a self-confessed alcoholic may admit he has a problem but not be able to admit that alcohol impacts his health and decreases his ability to function socially and professionally.

The key is that the alcoholic does not deny his problem and can thus discuss it freely with others. Honest and open dialogue can occur about this problem. The alcoholic may feel hurt, but he won’t feel offended and defensive because he will acknowledge the main aspects of what is happening.

Of course, this is the quadrant with the fewest problems. Everyone is on the same page, so there are fewer misunderstandings. Think about the type of conflict that would arise if the alcoholic himself didn’t see his problem and in fact blamed others for his spiral into depression. You might assume that this is the easiest and most common mode that we find ourselves in, but in fact it’s the rarest. How often can we truly speak freely with others, without pretense, and be met with a willingness to speak instead of raising our guards?

Blind Spot: They All Know, but You Don’t

And so we get to the first point where we need more self-awareness. Blind spots are awkward. This is where the alcoholic denies his problems, although they are plain to see for anyone that comes into contact with him.

Others notice blind spot spots as disturbing or unconventional traits. Frequently, the person caught in this position becomes embarrassed when their fault or misstep is pointed out—they feel, rightly, that others have been keeping a secret from them or are laughing at them behind their backs. But that’s not the case—the person with the blind spot is simply the one left out, so of course everything feels like it is behind their back.

If you have a blind spot, you can only hope that someone informs you of it (or you can directly ask others for their appraisal of you and feedback) and that you are ready to listen to them when they tell you. Blind spots are blind for a reason; it takes an enormous amount of introspection and observation on the effect that you have on the people around you to notice them, much like black holes in space are only observable because of their gravity’s effect on light.

Take the benign example of someone who has a bit of spinach stuck between their teeth. It’s a common and faultless mishap, and that person can correct it easily once they’re aware of the problem, which makes fixing things easy and pleasant. This is easy to remedy without any psychological resistance. What about a more serious example of the blind alcoholic refusing to change their ways while lashing out at anyone that insinuates that anything is wrong? The only path toward self-awareness is for them to finally notice that things aren’t going their way and that perhaps it is due to them. That’s the key—a semblance of self-responsibility.

With blind spots, there will often be layers of denial or shame to unravel. That takes time, and change in these situations is easiest to accomplish when the other person trusts you to be on their side. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes. We all can improve. But it all starts from knowledge that can be tricky to obtain.

So what blind spots might you have with regard to people skills and social interactions? We all would like for others to see us as we see ourselves, but sometimes that’s just not possible or plain inaccurate. Blind spots can be created as a stubborn decision to stick to our own self-perception; remember that the antithesis of blind spots is a plethora of different perspectives. How might you be trapped inside your own perspective, and can you see how that might cause tension with the people around you? Take care of these blind spots, at least the most glaring ones, because otherwise people will rightfully see that you are adhering to fantasy, not reality.

Hidden Area: Secrets We Keep

This is not particularly an area of concern in self-awareness, but it does influence how we interact with others.

When we know something others don’t know, that’s termed a hidden area. When you think your best friend’s new dress looks like an upside-down hot-air balloon, you’re probably going to keep it to yourself. That’s an example of a hidden area. Sometimes people hide things to help others, sometimes people hide things to avoid embarrassment, judgment, or punishment, and a lot of the time, people hide things for no particular reason. There are good and bad reasons to keep secrets, but this is not a book about that.

The tricky thing about this zone on the grid is that when we communicate, secrets can be shared, creating a middle ground between the open and hidden areas and allowing for discussions at various levels of confidentiality. If your partner knows you love hyacinths, but you never discuss flowers at work, that’s a fact that’s open at home but hidden at work. The more people know about information that was formerly hidden, the more open that secret becomes. However, if you share and reveal various levels of transparency or opacity, it will seem like you are hiding things—because you are. Beware of appearing manipulative.

Unknown Area: Nobody Knows

When no one at all knows about a topic, no one can talk about it, internally or with other parties. These bits of information might become known someday, putting them into one of the three other categories and allowing for discussion. Imagine a situation in which the topic of a movie comes up, yet no one has seen it. What’s to be said here? Not much.

The Johari Window’s strength is that it allows us to see the goal—a state of being where two or more people are both aware of what’s going on and are comfortable talking about it—and the most common impediments to that goal, namely that some information falls into the hidden and blind-spot categories instead. The sensitive times in communication exist when people aren’t aware of their own actions and when people hide vital clues that should be revealed. This causes tension and discomfort, as subterfuge appears to occur.

Consider this example. A couple loves each other and has a child. Soon, the mother becomes preoccupied with raising the little one. She finds this task emotionally and physically exhausting and spends less time and effort on her relationship with her husband. Her neglect of her husband is a blind spot; she doesn’t notice she’s doing it.

Her husband feels left out and misses the amount of fun and intimacy they used to share, but he loves his wife and believes she’s trying her best, so he doesn’t say anything. He is putting his unhappiness in the hidden area to spare her feelings. Good as his intentions were, these disconnects lead to the wife being left in the dark about how her behavior is hurting her husband while he is allowing her to continue exhausting herself and neglecting their relationship, inevitably leading to frustration and disappointment.

By communicating with his wife and telling her what her actions make him feel, the husband and wife could reaffirm their love for each other and work out a compromise that might make her feel less tired and him feel more loved. Bringing truth into the open space is what lets people find mutually satisfying solutions, become better people, and support each other more effectively. And yet they continue to not discuss matters, plunging their marriage into apathy and chaos simultaneously. Things have devolved into the unknown area where neither party knows why this is happening overall.

A strained marriage may seem like an example that doesn’t relate to everyday life, but this exact same dynamic can occur in daily life—at your office or with a friend. It’s as simple as you biting your lip about something that annoys you about the other person, keeping your feelings hidden to yourself, and then arriving at a point of tension when you’re in the unknown zone. The Johari Window lays out a blueprint for arguments and passive-aggressive behavior as well as how to avoid it.