We can all be reactive; let’s be honest and clear about that fact. I’ve never met the Dalai Lama; maybe he’s not reactive, but the rest of us are. And, let’s also be clear that being reactive hurts us and those around us. It hurts us in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. It makes others feel pushed away or judged or unloved. It makes us feel bad about ourselves, because we always know when we are being reactive, if we just stop defending our reactivity for one second. So, what’s the answer? Well, many teachers, including Beth Green, from whom I first learned this 30 years ago, have taught us the stimulus/reaction/response model.
What is that? Well, whatever happens is the stimulus. Let’s say my daughter comes home from middle school with a D in math. What’s my reaction? Well, on the inside, I might be judging, criticizing, challenging her about why she did so poorly. I might be thinking, “What in the hell is this?! Did you not study? What’s going on here?”
For many people, this reaction is exactly what immediately comes out of their mouths, right? And, I’ve been just as guilty as the next person. This is when we cause everyone to be upset and we often have to apologize for what we’ve said. We often defend our position by saying, “Well, of COURSE I’m upset, you just made a bad grade! Who WOULDN’T be upset?!” And, of course, fill in the blank of what “they” did to “make” YOU react the way you are reacting. This is such an old habit for us all! Whatever you don’t like, you can use that as the excuse for acting almost any way you want. Right? I am that! Let’s take this on. And, I KNOW this is a challenge!
If you can learn to intervene here, between that internal reaction that always blames the other person for YOUR reactions, and what comes out of your mouth, then you’re free! I mean that. If you can learn to intervene between your internal reaction and how you behave and what you say, you can be liberated from that reactivity that causes you and others so much pain. Take that in for a moment. You like being entitled to act in whatever impulsive way gets triggered in the moment, but the aftermath of that is repeated disruptions in your connections. How awesome would it be if you could STOP those triggers from controlling you?!
Here’s how you do it.
- NOTICE THE STIMULUS or trigger. TAKE A PAUSE!
- NOTICE YOUR INTERNAL REACTIONS. Do you immediately feel yourself tightening up in your body and want to explode? Or retreat? Or blame? Or withdraw? Or even laugh at someone? TAKE A PAUSE!
- STAY IN THE PAUSE until you are aware of yourself and the situation. When you are calm and neutral and you can THINK again, then consider what to say or do. This could take a few seconds, minutes or even hours or days. Give yourself whatever time you need.
- CONSIDER WHAT YOU WANT TO CREATE. Do you want to support that person? Do you want to stay connected to that person? Do you want to feel good after this interaction? Do you want to give them loving but painful feedback because you know they need it? Be aware of what you INTEND to create with your response.
- RESPOND from the motivation that you intend. Be aware and don’t be afraid to stop and start over if you don’t feel right about how it’s coming out.
Let’s go back to the example of my daughter. I was able to intervene between my reaction and my response. What I said to her was, “How do you feel about getting a D in math?” That was all I said. She said, “I don’t care about that grade.” I didn’t respond to that, because I knew it was BS. A few weeks later, she came running in after school and said, “MOM! I’ve got a B in math!” I said, “Good for you, Honey! How do you feel about that?” She said, “Good,” and that was it. There was no drama. The other person almost always knows what is right. They don’t need us to point out the obvious! And I got to feel good about how I handled that situation (unlike some others) and she got to take all the credit for shifting her attitude and behavior to get a better grade. She got to evaluate it and decide what action to take to improve and all that strengthened her.
Getting our reactivity out of the equation allows for everyone to focus on the REAL issue at hand and not our reactions and then their reactions to OUR reactions and no one focuses on the real issue! Being able to intervene and NOT react is one of the most powerful things we can learn in life! And no one is perfect. But, let’s get started using these simple tools today! And just keep practicing!