So how do you cultivate the ability to respond vs react? Like most things it’s a skill. It’s a skill that can be learned, honed and mastered. A lot of those “Zen” type of people that you see didn’t start out that way. Some did, but many, many didn’t. What you are seeing in a lot of cases is years of practice dedicated to learning this skill. It’s one of the most worthwhile endeavours you can undertake.
We’re all leaders in some fashion in our lives, either at work, in our families or larger communities. Learning and employing how to respond vs react is critical in helping us to achieve balance, peace and resiliency for ourselves and larger communities.
The key to mastering this skill is understanding it’s a paradox. The act of doing it is Simple but the “doing” is Hard. So, what are you doing? You’re finding the
P A U S E. That moment where you realize you are experiencing a “reaction” to something or some-one and you gently step outside of it and watch the reaction runs its course. It is that moment when you feel a reaction in your body (hot cheeks, chest tightness, butterflies in stomach) or thoughts (how could they say that, I don’t know the answer to that question, why is that person so mean?) and for a brief moment your attention has turned inwards on itself and you’re watching or listening to the inner monologue that we all have.
Becoming aware of those inner monologues and bodily reactions is the birth of the P A U S E. It’s a space that opens up and steps outside of time and thought and allows these reactions to run their course and pass by on their merry way. Picture a rider-less horse galloping by in your mind. It has no idea where it’s going or why it’s even running so it’s probably best not to follow it.
How do you cultivate the P A U S E? Here’s my system, I call it the Triple B method.
- Body- pay attention to your bodily sensations. They are usually the first sign that a reaction (unconscious, immediate, emotional) has started. Hot cheeks, increased breath, furrowed brow (my favourite). Now watch your thoughts, are they racing? Replying to what the other person has said, justifying, arguing, feeling defensive or angry? Now the inner monologue has kicked in and it’s time to move to step 2.
- Breath- now the Simple/Hard comes in. A strong, immediate feeling has taken hold upon your psyche/body and the tension it produces is almost unbearable and it feels like the only way to release that tension is to let it out and explode. (kind of like kindergarteners waiting to explode out of class for recess, wild, unruly and at times downright scary, nobody wants to get in their way). However, you can let those kiddos out a few at a time and decrease that tension by breathing. My favourite method is called box breathing. It’s a simple yet powerful way to bring your system back into balance. Breath in for a count of 4, hold for 4, breath out for 4, hold for 4. Repeat. Once to two cycles is usually enough to allow those feelings and sensations to run their course (i.e. let the kiddos burn off their steam). It’s really important not to short circuit these reactions, allow them to happen naturally but don’t engage with them. Let the horse run by and don’t follow it! Keep breathing until a sense of calmness or rationality has returned.
- Benevolent: assume a sense of kindness and compassion to your initial reaction. It’s not meant to harm you or anyone else, it’s unconscious, immediate and emotional. Understanding that you can’t control what your unconscious throws at you means you can adopt a forgiving attitude towards yourself (and others) that helps you to navigate your reactions so that you can move into a space where you can respond.
Understand that a P A U S E can be only a few moments or sometimes it can take a lot longer (minutes, hours or even days). However, once you master this skill it allows you to respond to situations in a meaningful and measured way. It allows you to evaluate and weigh all the relevant information which results in meaningful reflection that accounts for all points of view. I’ve found that once most individuals have successfully navigated the storm of their reactions (by not over or underacting) the response algorithm comes online naturally, and their inner kindergarteners settle down pretty quickly.