Original publication in Medium.com on December 31st 2019
The power of choice is one of the greatest gifts. Every choice has a positive or negative consequence for us at some level.
Our attitude toward life is the most important choice we make. But if your attitude is flawed, you’ll continue to get low returns on your efforts — both in your personal and professional lives.
There’s a space between action and reaction, and learning to access that space can make one’s choices more thoughtful and deliberate. This pause can be conceptualized as the beat or a few seconds between a stimulus and a response. The pause allows you to respond, instead of reacting.
Victor E Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
React vs respond
Reactions are instinctual. There’s no filtering process when you react in a situation — you’re running on auto-pilot. When you react, you do and say things on impulse, and don’t consider the implications of what you do or say.
A response is a deep breath, a pause, or a brief moment of mindful presence.
Responses are more thoughtful. When you respond, you first explore in your mind the possible outcomes of what you are about to say or do. You may weigh the pros and cons and consider what would be best for yourself and others in the situation.
Reacting to being passed over for a promotion would involve being passive-aggressive, or complaining. Responding would involve having a calm conversation with your boss about how to improve your work or yourself.
Emotionally intelligent people know how to leverage that space to maintain calm in the face of frustration or setback. They choose to take a deep breath and proceed calmly when things don’t go their way. They’ve learned to respond as opposed to react — a reaction is involuntary, whereas a response is considered, deliberate and thoughtful.
Adding that pause — that layer of observation, space, or mindfulness to the moment when you notice you’re triggered can mean the difference between strengthening or breaking a relationship at home or at work.
It could also mean taking a few minutes to cool down and reduce the charge of your emotional response. Or taking a walk away from the situation. Every person and every situation will require a different way of responding.
Inserting that important pause when you’re triggered gives you you the time to make a conscious decision on your next step. It’s the best way to disconnect from those automatic reactions and change the course of any situation completely.
Your capacity to respond can be developed like any other skill. And the more you practice, the better you become.
When you improve your emotional intelligence and control your base instinct to react, your prefrontal cortex (a section of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions) matures in the process. You rewire your brain’s default thought patterns to make better judgements and respond better to social cues.
Getting better at inserting a pause between action and reaction starts with paying attention to what you are feeling — knowing and recognising your moods, emotions, and feelings. This ability to monitor your own emotional states is a basic requirement for learning how to react better in any situation.
“Pause whenever you feel yourself about to react. Take a deep breath, step back, and give yourself the opportunity to respond,” says Matt James Ph.D., President of The Empowerment Partnership.
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman identifies self-awareness as one of the key components of emotional intelligence. He explains, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
Self-regulation and self-awareness work better together. Understanding your emotions is great, but what’s even more useful for you is making use of that knowledge.
Emotionally intelligent people are in tune with how they feel, but they do not let their emotions rule their lives. They are mindfully present when responding to situations.
In 10% Happier, Dan Harris discusses how meditation teaches people to respond better. “Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now — anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever — without getting carried away by it.”
He says “You can’t control what comes up, only how you respond.”
Much of our lives is spent in reaction to others and to events around us. You always have a choice. How you react or respond to setbacks changes everything. In stressful situations, be mindful, pause, then consider a thoughtful, compassionate response.
Written by Thomas Oppong