From Reacting to Responding
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When we’re stressed, we react. And rarely does anything good come from reaction. We tend to look back with embarrassment on what we said and did once we’ve gotten a bit of space and clarity. The good news is we can train ourselves to have said space and clarity without the reaction.
The following exercise uses some mindset skills to help you go from reacting to responding. This will help you get some practice reps in and give you a clear perspective on how you can take action.
Like any new skill, at first it will take some time and you won’t be perfect. The more you practice the easier and quicker it will be for you to go through the steps in real time. And just like any skill it’s best not to try apply it on the toughest, most emotionally charged moments. Build up to that over time. For your first few run throughs, I suggest setting aside 5ish minutes and use a notepad. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can do it in your head.
Step One — Take a minute
Literally, take a minute. Pause for just 60 seconds. You don’t have to do anything. You absolutely do not need to empty your mind of thoughts! That’s impossible.
If you’d like something to focus on, concentrate on big deep breaths, do a body scan, or simply look at the seconds ticking down. Thoughts are going to inevitably arise, it’s what your brain does. Some thoughts you’ll be able to notice and others you’ll get caught up in. When we become aware we’ve been riding a particular train of thought, we’re free to continue it or bring our focus back to the breath/body/clock.
- Recognise before you start that you’re taking time that will directly benefit your mindset, mood and mental well-being.
- Understand you can’t fail. Having thoughts during meditation/quiet time/clarity break is like getting out of breath while exercising. It’s part of the process. If you’ve decided to take a minute, you have already won. Even if you still blow up after the minute, you’ve still built some space.
- Afterwards, acknowledge that you put in the effort. By acknowledging the effort we’re sealing the win of the practice and reinforcing a healthy habit.
Step Two — Clarify Your Thinking
What are you thinking?
In your day to day life you can verbalise what you’re thinking to yourself or out loud. When you’re learning the skill, it’s a good idea to write it down. Writing things down ensures greater clarity in what the issue/problem actually is. You might be amazed how often we you go to write it you initially can’t pinpoint the issue, and when you do, how the mountain that was in your head looks more like a molehill on paper.
First up, just write whatever is in your head. It’s okay if it’s inchoate (this means not fully formed!)
Next up, separate the narrative from the data and the judgments
- Data: The facts as clearly as you can see them (e.g. They showed up at 12:07)
- Judgments: The motive we assign to the action (e.g. The showed up late because they’re disorganised and inconsiderate.)
- Narrative: Your conclusion based on the incomplete data you have and the judgments you assign to it. (e.g. They’re inconsiderate and this means…)
Note that a narrative doesn’t mean you’re wrong, or that the story you’re telling yourself is false. It’s simply a way of recognising that the conclusion we’ve drawn may or may not be 100% accurate and helpful. Phrasing it this way allows us to open up to more possibilities.
Step Three — What feeling do you have?
Uh oh, feelings! So many of us aren’t taught how to recognise and appreciate feelings, which are genuine signals from our body. And because we never got this training, they tend to overwhelm us. We either shy away from them or get swept along by them, and never get to use them to our benefit.
- Identify the emotion from the feelings wheel below (courtesy of Marshall Rosenberg)
We can identify an emotion without attaching our entire identity to it. It comes down to the language we use. Small shifts in language like this add up.
Good: “I am X”
Better: “I’m feeling X”
Best: “There’s X.”
Naming an emotion will not make it worse. It seems counterintuitive but once you name the emotion you’ve helped the process of it running its course.
Note: The English language is funny. “It feels like…” and “It feels that…” are not emotions, but rather judgments/assessments of the situation. Notice how often people will be unable to describe what they’re feeling the first few (hundred) times you ask them.
Building awareness of our feelings and the message they’re telling us is a superpower.
Now that you’ve named the feeling, take a minute to feel your feelings.
Set another timer for 60 seconds to allow yourself to physically feel the feeling. Where in the body is it? What’s happening? Tightening, heat, cold, tingling, stabbing, jumping, twisting, gurgling? Notice how it moves and changes throughout the minute.
Release valve: If this gets too intense, return to deep breathing, focusing on the sensations in your hands and feet, or place your hand on your chest. All humans respond to soothing touch, and while it may seem weird or uncomfortable at first, it can help you immensely.
Left alone, a feeling will naturally run its course (usually in waves of about 90 seconds). This is far healthier than repressing them or getting caught up in a cognitive-emotive loop.
Step Four — Identify Your Need
Are feelings are signals that a basic need has (or more likely hasn’t) been met. What need is this feeling triggering? According to Tony Robbins there are only six fundamental needs:
Limit yourself to 1–2 needs while building this skill. Any more and it can be very easy to fall back into story, frustration and/or hopelessness.
If you find yourself writing “I need this person to do this…” note that this is a strategy to get one of your needs met. For example, you need security that your friend will show up on time and not leave you alone. The strategy is for them to text you if they’re running late.
Keep distilling your strategies until you identify a fundamental need.
Step Five—Choose Your Response
Now that you’ve gotten some clarity on your thoughts, felt your feelings, and understand your needs, you’re in a much calmer place to take action. Based on what you know, you can respond rather than react.
The response you take after giving yourself some space will almost always be better than a snap reaction. Even if it’s the same as what you would have done without the pause, the intentionality behind it is completely different.
Finally a gentle reminder that like lifting weights, distance running, and lots of other tasks, we need to build up our skill in this area to be able to take on bigger and bigger challenges. Set yourself up for success and start with small annoyances before you try apply this to calamities.