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Do you ever get so caught up in your busy schedules, worries or problems that you lose sight of what’s important to you and react poorly in a situation?  It happens to all of us, but with a little effort, you can shift your ineffective reaction to an appropriate and more effective response.  I would like to share a simple (but not that easy) approach to give yourself some space between stimulus and response.

The first step is to recognize that you are caught up in an emotion or situation.  This is often the hardest step – especially if you haven’t been practicing this exercise for long.  You may tend to recognize that you are caught up in an emotion or crisis only after it is over and you’ve already reacted.  Other times you may recognize the signs while still in the middle of the storm.  If you are skilled at mindfulness, you may be able to see it as it begins.  No matter when you catch yourself and realize that you are reacting to a difficult situation, proceed to the next step – even if it seems too late for this situation.

The second step is to force yourself to pause and reflect on the moment and what’s consuming you.  This is also a difficult step – especially if we are experiencing a powerful emotion.  If you are able to muster the self-control to pause, take a moment to examine the stimulus or situation and your natural reaction.  Some of the questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Is this something in your control or influence?
  • Is this situation or stimulus important enough to deserve a response?
  • Is your behavior appropriate and helpful?
  • Is the behavior of others in the situation appropriate?
  • Is there an underlying insecurity that you or someone else is protecting?
  • Are you responding in the best way to achieve your objectives?

If you accomplished the first two steps, it gets easier from here.  The third step is to reconnect with your objectives:

  • What do you want out of this situation?
  • Why is that outcome important to you?

The final step is to respond:

  • Is a response warranted at all?
  • What is the best thing to do in the situation to be helpful or to move toward your objective?

Like I said, this sounds simple, but it isn’t easy, and I’m certainly still a work in progress.  I had a recent situation where I lost my temper with my wife and ruined a perfectly good evening.  I didn’t even get to step one of this list.  If I had, and I had paused before I reacted, then I would have been able to think that anger was not the appropriate response at the moment.  I could have waited and addressed the underlying issue later.

If you have handled a situation poorly, getting mad at yourself isn’t productive.  None of us are perfect, so don’t beat yourself up when you make a mistake by reacting inappropriately.  This respond-not-react concept is not easy, and it’s not useful to say over and over to yourself “I should have done XXX.” Or “I should be more YYY.”  Don’t “Should” on yourself!  It’s not useful.  If you missed an opportunity to respond-not-react, simply note it, note the consequences, promise yourself to continue working on your steps and move on.

The good news is that this simple process is actually just a mental skill.  And like all skills, through neuroplasticity, it can be learned and improved.  A regular meditation or mindfulness session is one option to improve this skill.  Another is to notice and practice respond-not-react opportunities in common situations you experience every day such as: when you are in traffic, in a checkout line, meetings at work, when your computer starts to run slow, when your kids or loved ones say something that causes an emotional response, etc. You have hundreds of opportunities each day to practice.  If you messed one up, don’t worry, you will have another opportunity soon.  As you get better at responding to the minor inconveniences of the day, you will be better prepared to respond-not-react when the next high stakes situation arises.

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