Identifying Areas for Personal Development

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n Perspective Desk

If knowing where you want to be, and establishing your personal vision, is the first step in any personal development, the next step is to understand where you are now. From this point, you can work out which areas are likely to need some work to improve your skills and abilities.
Being aware of your weaknesses enables you to take steps to start to address them. These steps may be through formal courses, working out how to use and apply your existing experience in a different way, or using everyday experiences and setbacks as a way to learn.

Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Being aware of your strengths and weaknesses – and, indeed, wider self-awareness – is a crucial part of emotional intelligence. Without a good understanding of yourself, it is very hard to either improve, or to respond effectively to others. Cultivating habits of reflection, self-awareness and understanding is therefore important for relationships throughout life.
Don’t forget your strong points! In identifying areas to work on, it is also important to recognise your strong points: where you already have very good skills or some particular expertise.
This will help:
a) To avoid you feeling as if all you do is criticise yourself; and
b) To identify where you might be able to draw on previous experience to develop new skills.
Some experts recommend a long list of things that you are good at, and a much shorter list of only four or five areas for development. This helps you to remain positive. It is also helpful to ask colleagues and friends if they think there are areas where you are particularly strong or weak.

Top Tip! Getting feedback from others
It can be difficult for people to give you feedback about strengths and weaknesses face-to-face, especially at short notice. It may feel like they are over-praising you, or picking holes in you, and people do not like to do either of those things.

You may therefore want to:
Explain what you want ahead of time, and ask if people are prepared to talk to you honestly. If possible, give them some areas to focus on (for example, you would like to know more about how you come across to other people, or what it is like to work with you). You will need to respect their decision if they prefer not to comment.
Set up a one-to-one discussion over a coffee, having given them enough time to prepare.
Ask a trusted friend to collate written feedback anonymously. If you go down this route, you may find that a useful format is ‘Keep, Stop, Start’. Here, you ask people to give two or three comments on things that you should keep doing, stop doing and start doing.

Identifying the Level of the Problem
Once you have identified the broad area of weakness or challenge that you want to work on, it can be helpful to dig a bit deeper. There are a number of ‘levels’ on which any problem can be expressed, and these will need to be addressed in different ways.
Dilts’ Logical Levels: Environment, Behaviour, Capability or Competence, Beliefs, Identity and Spirituality Identifying the level of the problem can help you to frame both it and a solution more effectively.
You can often identify the logical level by the language you use to describe the problem. For example, you may say:
“I can’t do this now. It’s too noisy to concentrate.” [Environmental]
“This is too difficult for me. I can’t do it.” [Behavioural]
“I don’t know how to do that.” [Capability]
“This just isn’t useful to me. I can’t be bothered to spend time on it.” [Beliefs or Values]
“People like me don’t do things like this.” [Identity]
The key is to address the problem at the level at which you have framed it.
If you have framed it as being about your identity, it is no good trying to address it by going somewhere quiet to help you concentrate. Instead, you need to think about why you have those views about ‘people like you’, and try to unpack that a little.

Focusing on What Matters
You have now, therefore, identified some weaknesses, and also worked out at what level you have framed the problem, and the need for change.
The final step in identifying what to work on is to focus on what matters. It is important to remember that you cannot do everything at once. Your ideal list of areas to address should be four to five key skills or areas of knowledge. Any more, and you will start to feel overwhelmed by the task you have set yourself.

Top Tip! Keep celebrating
the good
As you work on your personal development, you may find yourself feeling a bit negative about yourself, because you have so many things ‘wrong’ with you. It is therefore helpful to keep a longer list of things that you are good at somewhere to hand for those moments.
Finally, remember that as you grow and develop, your list of weaknesses and strengths will change. First, you will become better at some things, but secondly, you will identify other areas that now seem important to develop. Keep your personal development under review to ensure that you keep focusing on the most important areas.

Personal SWOT Analysis
SWOT analysis is the examination of your (or your organisation’s) situation by looking at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It has been used by businesses for many years as a strategic planning tool, because it helps to give you an all-round view of the organisation.
SWOT analysis are however, equally useful on a personal level as a way to identify areas for development, and as part of career discussions. Its simple format, and easy-to-apply structure mean that it can be used very easily without support.

A quick summary of SWOT analysis
SWOT analysis is a way of looking at your situation by identifying:
Strengths, or those areas where you have an advantage over others, or some unique resources to exploit;
Weaknesses, or areas where you or your organisation may be weaker than others, and may find that others can do better than you;
Opportunities, or possibilities that you can take advantage of to help you achieve your goals and ambitions; and
Threats, or things that may prevent you or your organisation from making a profit or achieving your goals.

Personal SWOT Analysis
A personal SWOT analysis is very similar to one for business, except that you focus on yourself and your goals. A personal SWOT analysis, however, may be more useful if you focus on a specific goal or problem that you want to address. This is because we all have a number of very diverse goals. The skills and attributes that may help us towards one goal may be irrelevant, or even a weakness, in another context. A threat in one context could be unimportant in another.

The SWOT Process
1. Identify the goal that you want to achieve
It is important to be as specific as possible. Be clear about timing, that is, when you want to achieve your goal, and also how you will know that you have achieved it (your success criteria).
If you have not yet identified any goals, you may find it helpful to read our page on Setting Personal Goals.
Thinking specifically about that goal:
2. Identify the personal strengths that will help you to achieve it, and the weaknesses that could prevent you.
It is often helpful to consider knowledge, skills, experience, resources and support that you have available. If you list these headings separately, you will remember to consider them all.

These areas are generally internal, that is, they relate to you personally, and the resources and skills that are available to you. They are, therefore, things that are generally under your control.

TOP TIP! Kick-starting your
self-analysis
If you find this process difficult, you may want to take our Interpersonal Skills Self-Assessment, to give you an idea of your strengths and weaknesses. This may be a useful starting point for further thinking.

3. Identify any personal opportunities that could enable you to achieve the goal, and also that you will be able to take advantage of when you have achieved it
Opportunities are generally external, relating to the environment and those around you, rather than you yourself. They include things like:
Promotions and financial incentives; and Events that are likely to happen at work or outside, such as someone going on maternity leave or sabbatical, that might mean you have a chance to do something new. In identifying opportunities that might open up as a result of achieving your goal, consider both short- and long-term benefits.

4. Identify any threats
These are external things and events that are worrying you, or that might happen and prevent you from either achieving your goals, or taking advantage of the benefits.

5. Review and prioritise
Finally, as always with development activities, and anything that looks like strategic thinking, it is a good idea to review your analysis. Ask yourself:
Is this recognisably me?
Is there anything that I have forgotten?
And finally, Which areas are most important in each of the four categories in the analysis?
Try to highlight one, or at most two, things from each of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that you think will be most important in achieving (or preventing you from achieving) your goal. Those areas will be your priorities for action.

Using a Personal SWOT Analysis
Our page Learning from Mentoring suggests that a personal SWOT analysis is a useful tool in working out what you want to get from mentoring. It is, however, much more widely applicable, and you can use it to help you to analyse any personal development or learning situation.
Going through this process for a particular goal and/or problem that you face enables you to identify which areas are really bothering you, and where you most need to focus your attention.
You can use the process for each and every goal, but it may be more helpful to use it only when you find a problem particularly challenging. It is, effectively, a way of ordering your thinking, and helping you to see the problem in a slightly different way.
Phone a friend? A personal SWOT analysis can be done on your own. However, it is worth bearing in mind that a business SWOT analysis is stronger if it draws on evidence from outside the organisation, such as independent market research, or views from customers. In the same way, a personal SWOT analysis is likely to be more powerful if you draw on the views of others.
If, for example, you are part of a learning group at work, or at college or university, you can agree to go through the process for each other in turn. You can even gather evidence from each other’s colleagues to support the analysis.
If you are doing this by yourself, you may want to ask friends and colleagues their views on your strengths and weaknesses, or ask them to comment on your first draft analysis and suggest additions.

A Final Thought…
Like any personal development process, a SWOT analysis is not something that you want to do every day. But if you are finding a particular problem is very intractable, or that you are really struggling to know where to start with a goal, it may be a useful way of ordering your thinking, and giving you a different perspective on the problem.

Improving Your Skills by Developing Your Weaknesses
There are a number of ways in which you can start to work on areas of weakness. In drawing up a plan for your personal development, it can be helpful to include several different methods to address problems. This helps to maintain interest.

Options include:
Formal courses or learning opportunities, whether leading to qualifications or not; More informal learning experiences such as reading, mentoring or shadowing (and see our page on Learning from Mentoring for more about this); Applying your formal learning deliberately in a particular situation, to see what happens; and
Direct learning from your own experience, through a process of reflection (see our page on Reflective Practice for more) and expertise transfer.
Which you choose, and when, will depend on many factors, including financial implications, because formal courses and qualifications usually cost money, and also the value that you think you are likely to get out of them.

Expertise Transfer
Expertise transfer is the process of drawing on your existing areas of expertise and learning to apply them in slightly different ways. In effect, it is a way of making sense of your challenges by using what you already know from another setting.
The key to expertise transfer is to identify something that you are really good at. Many people, especially when they are finding something difficult, find it hard to identify anything at which they are ‘expert’. But in this case, it means something:
That you can do relatively easily; Where you do not need to be supervised; and That you like or, at worst, feel comfortable doing. It is helpful to identify something that has several stages to it, rather than just one.

Expertise transfer in practice
Identify the key challenge that you are facing, in as much detail as possible. For example, you may find it hard to do written work because you never quite know where to start.
Identify something that you do really well. This might be at work, or outside work, at home, or when you were studying, or a hobby.
Think about and list all the skills that you use to do that thing well. Whatever level of detail works for you is fine, but do think about them carefully in terms of not just the skill, but what you do with it.
Now think about how each of those skills might help you do the challenge that you have identified. Again, think about what you might do with the skill to help you address the challenge. Finally, consider whether your challenge now ‘makes sense’: do you have the skills you need to do the job?

Learning from Mistakes
One of the most powerful ways to learn and develop is from making mistakes. While nobody would advocate deliberately setting out to do things wrong, mistakes happen to everyone, especially if you are prepared to take risks and try something new.
You can either treat mistakes as things to be hushed up and never spoken about again, or as learning opportunities. Making mistakes:
Gives you a chance to do things wrong, and then reflect about how you could and/or should have done them differently; and
Can, if you are lucky, uncover real truths about good ways of working and improve relationships.

Case study: A cautionary tale of a lost temper
Jan was not in a good mood. She had been under a lot of pressure at work. She was a civil servant, managing a small team, all of whom were working very hard and very long hours to meet demands from their senior managers and from ministers for more and more work.
She was currently chairing a meeting of about fifteen people, many of whom were from voluntary organisations. The meeting had been going on about an hour, and the voluntary organisation representatives had spent most of the hour complaining about the lack of support from Jan’s team. So far Jan had listened politely and explained several times that the voluntary organisations were very welcome to do some work on the area if they wished.
“But,” said one of the senior representatives, “we will need your team to provide some secretarial support. If we could just have two people for a few hours a week…”
Jan looked round the room, at the voluntary organisation staff nodding vigorously, and the other civil servants studiously not meeting her eyes, and she lost her temper.
“Look,” she said angrily, “this policy area is just not a priority for ministers. My team is working flat out on other things that ministers are actually interested in. If you want this work done, you’re going to have to do it yourselves. I can present it to ministers for you, but beyond that, no.”
She stopped, appalled. She had tried so hard to be conciliatory, and now she had just thrown several months, if not years’ worth of relationship-building straight out of the window. There was a long pause in the room. Then one of the voluntary organisation representatives said, slowly,
“Thank you for telling us the truth. Nobody’s ever been honest with us about this before in two years of working on this. We’ll set up some working groups and report back to you at the next meeting.”
The relationship improved enormously after that episode, and the group started to work together much more effectively.
Potentially, losing her temper was a huge mistake for Jan. She certainly took away the lesson that self-control was vital and that she needed to work on it. But she also never forgot the importance of being honest with other people about priorities.
A final word, there are many different ways in which to learn and develop your skills. The key is to recognise what will work for you, and to make sure that you do not focus on just one option. Variety is, after all, the spice of life, and this applies to personal development too.

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