Maria stands in front of the class, composed of 30 managers on day two of a four-day leadership training workshop. This day's section is an inquiry into personal values. The class is working in groups to coach each other on clarifying their individual values.

One of the members calls Maria over and asks sarcastically, "What do we do if our group doesn't need work in this area?" Maria internally reels in both fear and confusion as she notices the look of utter disinterest on the other group members' faces. This wasn't how she'd expected the day to start. Taking a deep breath, she prepares her response

As trainers and consultants, we face these tricky situations all the time. We are human beings dealing with other human beings, and our roles and assignments are, by definition, ambiguous. The reality is that no matter how many models, figures, and materials we bring along to our engagements, we are ultimately the most important part of the work.

Think for a moment about the most powerful trainers or consultants you know. What makes them so effective? What are the characteristics that make them this way? Most of us would say that they are extremely competent with their material. But there is likely something else - something intangible that makes them so charismatic and good at what they do. They are probably masters of themselves, and thus, masters of their situation. We call this type of ability "use of self."

History and foundations of use of self

"Use of self," also known as "self as instrument," has regularly been discussed or taught as important to the role of the trainer or consultant. The National Training Laboratory (NTL) T-group movement during the 1950s and 1960s brought considerable attention to how self-awareness, feedback, and interpersonal and group dynamics affect behavior and impact. Within this conversation, effective use of self became a hot topic. Sadly, however, use of self became overidentified with self-awareness - an important but limited part of the overall concept.

What is use of self?

Use of self is the conscious use of one's whole being in the intentional execution of one's role for effectiveness in whatever the current situation is presenting. Put another way, use of self is mindfully using all of our talents, skills, and abilities in a way that's best for a given situation. The purpose is to be able to help others to clearly and cleanly, without personal interference (such as bias, blindness, avoidance, or hidden agendas) and with enough consciousness, have clear intentionality and choice. It shows up in our presence - how we talk and act, as well as our strengths and behavioral preferences. Additionally, our culture, family, intentions, and various socioeconomic identities influence "how we show up." Our use of self is always understood in the context of the role we are serving,

as a leader, trainer, project manager, or consultant.

The use of self is organized around three core competencies and three levels of development. Competencies describe the critical capabilities that we use in every situation and throughout all stages of development. Levels of development describe our ability to apply these competencies in consulting and training situations. Competencies are how we help. Levels of development are how well we help.

Core competencies

Seeing involves what we are able to take in using the six senses. It is the principle of being aware of the world around us and the ability to take in as much data as possible. In developing the "seeing" competency, we need to pay attention to seeing self, seeing others, and seeing context. Social sensitivity to the surrounding system is a way to understand this competency. This sensitivity can be compromised by our biases, personal frames, operating metaphors, and habitual assumptions. Core to this competency is the ability to see "reality" as others see it and as free of our own biases as possible, which includes both what is visible to us and what we can take in. In developing this competency, it is helpful to

  • Expand the breadth and depth of inquiry and openness.
  • Enlarge one's scope of awareness.
  • Be able to recognize multiple types of data.
  • Become cognizant of personal filters and blocks.
  • Identify one's own individual and cultural biases.

Knowing involves making sense of what we see. It is using a combination of knowledge and experience to organize information and draw hunches, conclusions, and interpretations. In training situations, the knowing phase often requires quickly and confidently creating meaning from limited data. Knowing also comprises two key interpretive domains: learned theories (more objective) and internal mental models (subjective) developed through life experience. Both domains are crucial to the knowing process.

The more objective domain contains theories, models, and frameworks and allows practitioners to gain insights based on commonly held existing knowledge. The subjective domain, often understood as "personal maps" or "mental models," allows practitioners to make use of internal belief systems, deeply held values, tacit knowledge, and profound life experiences.

By combining the best external knowledge with one's internal understanding, practitioners improve their ability to gain insight, harness the right data, and use proper discretion. At higher levels of development, knowing is executed through deeply internalized knowledge, which often shows up as intuition. In developing this competency, it can be helpful to

  • Practice different ways of knowing.
  • Inventory various interpretive schemes and "practice theories."
  • Study academic research and publications.
  • Work on integrating theory and experience into useable knowledge.
  • Develop awareness of cognitive and emotional components of knowing.
  • Identify our meaning-making processes.
  • Recognize one's foundational values.
  • Raise one's consciousness of personal preferences and influences in decision making.

Doing involves the capacity for executing a full range of behavioral choices. This is when we recognize our options, demonstrate behavioral flexibility, and exercise personal skill and courage in a manner that delivers whatever is most helpful for a given situation. This capability builds on the results of the previous two competencies. It is the culmination of the data intake and interpretation process that allows for the enactment of appropriate behavior. In developing this competency, it can helpful to

  • Develop our skill repertoire.
  • Create a portfolio of action alternatives.
  • Enhance our ability to use will and courage.
  • Develop our ability to execute, implement, and follow through.
  • Enhance our ability to manage resistance.
  • Raise our patience and perseverance.
  • Gain understanding of our habitual preferences.

Levels of development

To understand the levels, we need to see human functionality through a developmental lens. Developmental theory states that human beings evolve through various levels of functionality, understanding, and outlook throughout their lives as they learn and grow. We must be seen as neither bad nor good as we grow, but in evolution through various phases of cognition, perception, individuation, and other categories that comprise the self. Our use of self will, in turn, naturally develop over time and can be intentionally developed with attention, practice, and individual and social reflection.

In each competency, there are levels of effectiveness through which we can progress. Each competency requires its own focus of attention and specific practice to improve. What follows are the three stages that comprise the developmental component of use of self.

Functionality is a stage of knowing "how to do it." This is where we have learned what to do and how to operate in terms of basic aspects of seeing, knowing, and doing. Here we must concentrate and pay attention to doing it right, following appropriate steps, or running through some criteria to determine use. We are starting to trust the material, method, technique, or concept.


Efficacy is a further stage of development marked by increased flow and less concentration. Seeing, knowing, and doing become less challenging. The range of data we work with, our knowledge available for sense-making, and the behavioral flexibility of options and skills for taking action are expanded. It is marked by higher levels of confidence and presence. We begin to operate from the inside and understand our role in what happens. The sequence of taking in, creating meaning, and taking action become more seamlessly integrated. This is similar to the phrase "conscious competence."

Mastery is the highest stage of development and is characterized by fully integrated and seamless work. Our presence alone has some of the greatest impact. Seeing, knowing, and doing have become simultaneous, back and forth activities with little conscious decision making. Intentionality and end purpose are intertwined and unencumbered. This stage is marked by effortless action and sometimes "magical" occurrences that appear to come out of deep intuition.

The three competencies blend together and operate in one fluid motion. The actions of the individual are marked by an internal drive versus an external reliance on material. It is similar to the phrase "unconscious competence," where we are no longer aware of what we doing exceptionally well.

It is important to note that we are all human beings and may move up or down the pyramid day by day depending on our mood and external circumstances. Managing our use of self and achieving mastery is an intentional lifelong process for all of us.

The importance of self awareness

Difficult training and consulting situations engage cognitive, emotional, physical, and even spiritual aspects at various moments. Consequently, we require development along all of these dimensions. The development process is a journey, mixing knowledge acquisition, self-awareness and practice.

Content knowledge provides concepts, frames of reference, and technical requirements for taking action. Self-knowledge helps to illuminate the emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of ourselves with greater understanding of feelings, triggers, strengths, limitations, values, personality traits, personal meaning, preferences, sensitivities, and vulnerabilities. Through self-awareness, we gain greater consciousness, leading to greater intentionality and choice, and grow out of the confines of our limited frames and blind spots, biases, skills and habits. This gives us greater ability in training and consulting situations to not just react or do what we usually do, but instead to inquire rather than assume; listen for what's new, different, or unique this time rather than interpreting; and choose among alternative behaviors rather than exercise habitual actions.

The importance of action-taking

Using our self awareness to influence behavior, intention, choice, and outcomes in service of another is where we bring use of self to life. Doing something with self-awareness is ultimately what counts. Action-taking represents the final stage in the use of self. It is the "do," as referenced in the see-know-do framework. Taking action is also likely the most complex and risky aspect of the use of self for many reasons:

  • Helpful doing involves the culmination of effective seeing and knowing.
  • Having role clarity is key to determining effective, intentional action.
  • The effectiveness of our work is mostly judged by others through the results we deliver.

Action taking can also become challenged by falling into habitual patterns, becoming stuck in comfort areas or choosing options that are purely self-serving. Expanding our behavioral repertoire helps us provide more options and greater confidence to act.

Implications of use of self in our world

While this framework is intended for anyone in a "helping" relationship, managing ourselves and working toward mastery is a critical component for most in organizational life. The following are some examples of how it can show up for all of us in different roles:

Leadership. How organizational leaders "show up" goes a long way toward determining the results they achieve. Powerful leaders are powerful influencers, and this begins with self-awareness and effective use of self. Managing change in an organization starts first with the individual. How a leader understands and approaches change will go a long way toward determining how the organization does the same. Developing powerful leaders must be in part a process of deepening awareness and interpersonal impact. Powerful people use self-awareness and have a positive influence on situations.

Human resources. Many HR departments are looking to maximize value in organizations. One of the quickest ways of unlocking value in people is to help them examine their use of self. Many HR teams are now moving to a business-partner model, aligning with leaders to drive strategic initiatives. This type of "consultative work" requires deep interpersonal skills, the ability to develop and maintain trust, and finely tuned social sensitivity. For HR departments to continue to be relevant, they must focus on deeper, transformational work that can't be outsourced. Use of self-work is the foundation of facilitating transformational work.

Training and consulting. Influence is the principle way we transfer skills and drive change today. Influence primarily comes through developing trusting relationships - a critical aspect of the conscious and effective use of self. Much of our training work begins and ends at the behavior level. It doesn't get to the belief level, which is where deep change occurs. Use of self provides a training model to facilitate deep, belief-level work. Too much consulting work leads to undesirable outcomes because we get in the way of what clients need to do. Use of self helps us learn how we can be most helpful in a consistent way.

Maria pauses before responding. She notices just how frustrated she gets when people act as though they don't need what she has to offer. She then recognizes that this frustration is about her and doesn't have anything to do with this particular group of people. In fact, what she sensed as sarcasm may not be that at all. Who knows, this group could literally just have done work in this area.

She decides to give them the benefit of the doubt and ask some questions. She clears her throat and says, "Got it. Well, my goal is to be the most helpful person I can be over the next handful of days. What do you think would help your group get to the next level?"

Ultimately, we help others by helping ourselves. The better we get at managing ourselves, the better we become at supporting others. As we lead others down their path, we walk our own!