Reacting or Responding: We Can Choose

Replacing those impulsive, knee jerk, adrenaline-charged urges to flight, flight, or freeze (which we call reactions) with a mindful, thoughtful, curious calm (we call responding) sounds great. But how do we do it? Think of the last time someone:

  • Pushed your button
  • Got your goat
  • Tripped your wire
  • Lit your fuse
  • Triggered your vulnerabilities
  • Grabbed your attention
  • Bothered and upset you

There’s a strong likelihood that you reacted instead of responding. This wouldn’t be a big deal except that reactions often trigger in others their own reactions and off we go into an escalating spiral of conflict. Someone once wisely wrote, “There is no problem so big that it can’t be made bigger with reactivity.”

There are two ways to interrupt this vicious cycle.

  1. Do all in your power not to trigger another’s reaction. This isn’t easy because you can’t always predict what will set someone off.
  2. Do all in your power to respond (not react) when other’s push your buttons.

Here are fourteen strategies to help you respond. Some of these admittedly sound silly, but they work. Remember, a conscious action is better than an unconscious reaction.

  1. Imagine you’re a giant frying pan covered with Teflon and all provocations, irritations, and insults just slide off like eggs.
  2. Imagine you’re a duck and those same provocations roll off like water.
  3. Imagine you’re a wind up clock and a storm is raging outside. A power outage doesn’t affect you one tiny bit.
  4. Imagine you are hard-to-ignite, damp kindling rather than easy-to-ignite dry tinder. Let spark-like comments fall on damp ground that won’t ignite.
  5. Imagine you’re a chunk of wood or a China tea-cup unaffected the pull of a magnet. Stop being that metal nail unable to resist the pull into another’s magnetic field.
  6. Imagine you’re standing in ocean  waves up to your chest. As the waves crash in imagine yourself turning sideways and all the turbulence flows right past you. Imagine provocative statements are like those waves. Simply turn sideways and let them wash by.
  7. A provocateur is like baking soda; a vulnerable person is like vinegar. A chemical reaction is sure to occur! If you can’t stop others from being baking soda, mentally transform yourself into water.
  8. Become curious. Even if you’re on the receiving end of a slanderous attack, absurd accusation, or scurrilous insinuation, ask yourself, “Hmmm. I wonder what possesses that person to behave in such a manner?”
  9. Contribute to others’ serenity by being serene yourself. Breath deeply, talk calmly, and enjoy the powerful calming influence you’ll be.
  10. Active listening. Calmly repeat what you’re hearing without agreeing or disagreeing. “If I hear you correctly you think I’m a bad (partner, spouse, parent, human). It sounds like you wish I was dead. Am I getting this right?” This strategy has the double advantage of showing our disputant respect AND it helps prevent jumping to false conclusions.
  11. Examine yourself to see if there are any targets on your back. That is, what non-verbal clues have you given that indicate you are sensitive to certain comments? If others get your goat, don’t tell them where it’s tied up!
  12. Eliminate those things that make you vulnerable to other’s manipulation. Just as caffeine short-circuits your natural sleep-inducing brain chemistry, brain clutter–ego, fear, defensiveness, pride–short circuits your responses.
  13. Maintain a clear conscious. Hebrew scriptures teach, “an undeserved curse has as much influence on us as a bird flying overhead, which means none!”
  14. Let it go. Don’t let things get to you. Learn to live with less adrenaline. Relax. Focus on the present, not past offenses or future worries. Be centered, balanced, and aware of your surroundings. Do not run off like a chicken without a head. Replace impulsive, compulsive, panicky, anxious and obsessive thoughts with inner calm.

For some, impulse control is very difficult. But like all important skills, the payoff for replacing reactions with responses is worth the effort.

Final words: Slow down, cool down, calm down, settle down!

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