A to Z of coaching: A – Awareness


I’m not sure if I adopted the phrase from a teacher, nor am I sure about the accuracy of the estimated quantity but I often find myself saying to a client, “Raising awareness is half the battle”.

Raising, or expanding, our awareness is an essential component of coaching work. 

At any given time, we have a limited awareness of what’s happening in the world around us. It is impossible to be fully aware or to be up to speed on everything that’s going on – even though we often pursue the fantasy that it is, or should be, achievable.

Awareness is a key element of wisdom. If wisdom is the ability to cope, with effectiveness and ease, with the demands of the world, then awareness allows us to respond more appropriately and to apply our innate wisdom.

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about how accessing that innate wisdom “rests on our capacity for embodied awareness and on our ability to cultivate our relationship to that awareness”. How do we do that? You may notice the essential elements of mindfulness in the answer: by paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.

We can raise our awareness of our ‘self’, of our thoughts, tendencies and behaviours. We can raise our awareness of our circumstances, the relationships we have with others, and the commitments and responsibilities we have in the world.

We can also raise our awareness of our belief system and that of others, of the ‘programming’ that drives much of our observable behaviour, of our attachment to stories and fictions that guide us in decision-making and value judgments.

The fact that we can raise our awareness should fill you with hope. 

The expansion of awareness is a skill and can be practiced and developed. In fact, it’s very much in our interest to make it a practice, both formally and informally.

When our awareness is low we’re prone to ‘tunnel vision’ missing out on a lot of what’s happening around us. With low awareness, we’re prone to getting stuck more easily. We’re vulnerable to believing in narrow versions of reality which limit our potential contribution and create fantastical heroes and villains in narratives that rarely serve us or others well.

Steven Hayes talks about awareness providing “a foundation to experience life in a more open way”. And that requires a certain amount of courage. Sometimes, in a difficult moment, it feels easier to remain closed to alternatives, even if it prolongs a suffering that feels, at the very least, somewhat comfortable.

Raising our awareness and opening to life more substantially also brings more responsibility as we are faced with new choices. Knowing what we now know today raises the question of whether we should repeat what we did yesterday. Those choices are now for us to make.

Here are three things you can do now to build awareness:

1. Commit to developing and maintaining a mindfulness practice. Most of us are familiar with mindfulness, as referenced above, but yet too many of us haven’t bridged the knowing-doing gap. It’s ok, in fact preferable, to start small and build gradually. Robes and incense are not obligatory! A minute outside with a focus on the breath can go a long way.

2. Accumulate and apply exercises that nudge you out of low awareness patterns. By exposing yourself to challenge, you can help yourself to see a broader picture and a revised perspective of your role in it. Ask disconfirming questions i.e. seek to poke holes in your present perceptions. (If you’d like examples of exercises I use in my coaching work, just reply to this and I’ll gladly share some with you).

3. Open your situation to review by external eyes. We all have biases and blind spots. It helps to have alternative perspectives which stretch us beyond our present ‘limits’ of thinking. This may involve working with a coach, or a peer group, or informally with trusted advisors and friends. This also requires courage and the willingness to invest in yourself, something we are surprisingly reluctant to do.

It all starts with a single breath and a single step forward.

(This is the first in a series of concise articles exploring the discipline of coaching, using the alphabet as a prompt for some key concepts and lesser-known curiosities within the field. Each piece is designed to be helpful in its own right, posing some useful questions that can be applied to everyday challenges).


This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.




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