4 Keys to Responding Instead of Reacting
Via Caroline Southwell for Elephant Journal
I have some AWARE friends.
They are exceptional at being present and they are good at being called on their behavior when it is out of line with who they say they are or want to be. They’re also exceptional at doing the same for me.
However in the last two days I had two different, amazing friends of mine tell me over a cuppa that they weren’t happy with something I said. One brought up something that happened over three months ago, that both he and his partner hadn’t liked. Let’s call him Kevin.
Kevin wanted to remind me about something I had said the last time he and his partner were at my place: “I don’t know if I ever told you that, but I wanted to let you know it was inappropriate.”
Interesting. Who decides what’s appropriate or inappropriate? By what standards do we measure this? And surely it’s different for every person? So how does that work with more than seven billion people interacting on a daily basis?
What I realized as I reflected upon this situation, is that two things were happening. First, he was communicating his boundaries to me about how he wants me to behave, particularly around his partner (that’s fair, but three months later?). Second, neither himself nor his partner were taking responsibility for how they’re reacting to what I said.
My view is that they were reacting this way because they viewed my behaviour as “bad” and he appeared to be telling me off the way parents tell off their children. How often we see this dynamic playing out in society between friends, colleagues, spouses and within countless other relationships.
And so I just sat there, somewhat gobsmacked that my friend was still missing this piece. For someone who had taught me so much about being present and not missing the lessons, he was so caught up in the story, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and his body language clearly told me it was not up for discussion.
Fast forward to yesterday and I was sitting with a couple of friends of mine. I knew my girlfriend, let’s call her Jesse, wanted to talk to me about something, as we’d been playing phone tag for a couple of days. As our guy friend left to go for a walk, Jesse launched straight into telling me that she didn’t like a text message I sent her, that it made her feel bad.
I hadn’t known what she wanted to talk about, but since we often do coaching and healing session swaps for one another, I figured she’d found some other piece that she wanted help clearing.
So when she said this, it very much came as a surprise. And as Jesse explained to me which words had “hurt her,” I found myself again looking with interest, as I had with my friend Kevin, wondering what the heck was going on.
Why was this beautiful, spirited, present, powerful woman behaving in a reactionary way and getting thrown by a well-thought out, gentle but honest text message? How was she going to cope when people didn’t take time to craft their thoughts before expressing them? How was she going to handle straight out criticism as she becomes more and more well known as a speaker?
I was grateful that Jesse was open, unlike Kevin, to explore why she was feeling the way she was. And in that space we got to look at these powerful questions and she then had the space to work out what she needed and wanted to do differently. She gave me the space to explain why I had use those particular words and what those words meant to me, and for her to express what those words meant to her.
And so we were able to come to a place of mutual understanding and respect through open and courageous dialogue, that my other friend Kevin hadn’t been open or willing to do.
What I came to realise was that in both instances they were working too much and not playing enough. They both felt trapped by their circumstances, particularly with the struggles they were having with money and didn’t feel they were allowed to fully express themselves in the way they most wanted to. This lead to them being tired, and more likely to react rather than respond in a calm, present and curious way.
We all have a role to take in being responsible.
I am responsible for what comes out of my mouth, what’s typed by these fingers and all that these hands touch.
How others respond to what I express is their responsibility. I cannot make anyone feel anything. Likewise for you… all that you think and express in the world is your part and how you react or respond to what others do, that’s your part too. But what comes out of someone else’s mouth and how they react to what you say, that’s their part to play in this game we call life.
So four ways to help you respond rather than react are:
1. Get grounded.
There are many ways to do this, and the trick is to find a way you like to do it. Anything that helps you get in your body (like a form of exercise you love—running, dancing, sex with a loving partner) will definitely help. Consciously taking big deep breaths is probably the easiest and quickest way to bring you back to now, and get you back into your body and out of your head. Of course, getting outside in the sunshine, or the cold, with your feet on the grass (or the snow!) will also help you get in your body again.
2. Notice when you’re over analyzing.
If you find yourself lying awake at night on a regular basis because you can’t switch your mind off, this is a good sign you’re over analyzing (probably a lot of things!). So use the above ideas (or your own) to get grounded. The more grounded you become, the easier it is to get present, and then the more aware you become, the more you’ll catch yourself over analyzing! Once you’re aware of something you can change it, not before.
3. When someone says something you don’t like, take a deep breath before speaking.
This also applies to writing since we have so many conversations via text message, email, Facebook messages and the like… and the idea is to give yourself time to notice how you’re feeling, how you’re reacting internally before you express it externally to the other person or people involved. So often our initial reaction gets us in trouble, it causes the other person or people to also get defensive and react, and then the cycle whirls out of control. You can stop this by taking a deep breath and considering your response, and what the other person might be trying to communicate.
4. Appreciate that everyone is different.
Your friends, family, colleagues, and even your acquaintances you bump into as you go through life will all have had different life experiences to you. The experiences we have and the way we interpret these experiences form our beliefs, our attitudes and ultimately our personality. So the next time someone says something that you totally disagree with and you find yourself feeling out of sorts, ask yourself if you can appreciate that this person is different from you. Not wrong necessarily, just different. Because after all, wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same?