Self-Awareness First

Posted on October 22, 2021

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This guest article is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, Assistant to the City Manager for the City of Arvada, CO. Read all of Matt’s other articles at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.

One of the courses I recently completed is “Intercultural Communication”. What I found was that though there was some good information about other cultures, other approaches, the fundamental piece of competent communication across different groups is self-awareness. So long as we take our personal successes for granted, so long as we gauge others by whether they conform to our standards, we will not be able to be meaningfully inclusive. How can we if we put our own values and perspective a step above any others?

Even if we’re ignorant concerning another group whether by race, nationality, faith, or any number of other demographics, much of that ground can be made up by a sense of self-humility, to leave room for others’ experiences and ideas to help shape and influence our decisions. In this case, it’s the awareness of what we don’t know which helps us listen to those that do. Otherwise, we’ll be all too keen to correct, to question, to curb others’ opinions.

We can be better self-aware by framing our strengths, our leadership style, our career path as one valid option across a spectrum of equally valid opportunities. We know this already. We know there are exemplary local government leaders who are successful whether they excel in technical expertise or emphasize interpersonal skills. There are those who are always at the forefront of the conversation and those who sit in the back and work behind the scenes. Some work their way up internally and others pick up experience across several organizations. Any credible research on leadership concludes that there’s no one-size-fits-all.

The challenge is to understand our own preferences, our own biases enough to appreciate alternatives. It’s still finding value in the job candidate or emerging manager who’s taking the same graduate degree, who reminds us of ourselves 10 or 30 years ago, and also elevate the other prospective or current employee who confuses us, confounds us, who gets their work done in a way we initially had reservations about. Lean into that discomfort of uncertainty and embrace it.

A couple of examples:

Conflict Styles…

In mainstream America, we tend to value a conflict style that is direct and emotionally restrained. In other words, we state what our problem is, who our problem is with, and what we want done about it, all in a way that is tactful and even-toned. People can be indirect, they can be more emotionally expressive, we just don’t favor and reward those approaches as much.

We can though.

When I served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines the preference there was an indirect approach, one that helped people save face, and conflicts were resolved just fine. Many groups, especially those with disadvantages, often have to raise their voices and show their anger, their sadness, their joy to be in order to be heard. This is also perfectly acceptable so long as we allow it to be.

But shouldn’t people be “professional”? Yes. We also get to define what is professional, how open or narrow that definition is.

Tensions in Communication…

All communication has some element of both the past and the present in it. We must contend with both our own history and lived experiences while also dealing with the situation at hand. If we’ve worked well with a colleague in the past, we bring that with us when there’s a problem we have to fix with them. When we’ve had some issues in the past with someone we keep it in mind if there’s a new chance at collaboration. From what stays the same to what changes, from what he have in common and what’s different, we engage with others with all these contradicting tensions at play.

Depending on our professional responsibility and personal values, we can lean towards certain directions. The resident who’s live in the community for decades will likely lean towards the past, what the community’s history and heritage is, whereas the recent college grad starting in their position will lean towards the present, what the community can work towards. Both are valid. The Planner will have to assess whether a business conforms to the zoning, treating it as any other applicant. The developer will have in mind their unique situation, will be focused on their individual project. Both are reasonable, acceptable, and have value.

But don’t people need to understand the importance of our institutional perspective? of why we lean the way we do? Yes. We also must recognize the benefit, the potential, the complement of the others’ leanings.


The more we understand our beliefs, our approach to local government as but one choice that coexists among others, the more we can be genuinely inclusive. The more we understand our beliefs, our approach to local government as the correct way above others, the more we will exclude.

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