Don’t hit send (yet)

To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, experience isn’t what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us. We have a choice about how to relate to any given situation, but oh, the choices we make! Too often they are knee-jerk reactions to events rather than responses that are the result of any real thought process.

How recently have you sent an email or text that you almost immediately regretted? It’s so easy and quick to react and hit ‘send’. But then the second thoughts arrive, or worse, the other person’s angry answer. And so we get caught up in a cycle of reflexive reaction that often makes honest, productive communication difficult to achieve.Email send

I currently have to work with someone whom I find very difficult. Unfortunately, email, with its inherent weaknesses, is the usual way we do business. This person seems (to me) to be overly sensitive, easily stressed, inattentive, and often very reactive. Sometimes I will send what feels like a very straightforward, innocuous message to this person, and get something back that just makes me want to scream. In the past, my instinct would have been to reply with some sort of snarky, hostile email. Now I am learning to wait a while before replying so that I can practice responding instead of reacting.

Responses are logical where reactions are emotional. Responses relate to the current situation as it is, while reactions tend to have some emotional associations to the past. Responses are thoughtful, reactions instinctual. Parent coach Nicole Schwarz recommends meeting “emotionally-charged behavior” not with criticism or judgment, but with observing and questioning. Richard Blonna has a list of  responding skills, including using “I” language, saying “tell me more”, paraphrasing, and reflecting back what the other person has said. These all have a way of defusing an emotionally-charged or angry situation.

The basis for responding rather than reacting is the cultivation of equanimity, being able to meet people and situations with tranquility, open-heartedness and acceptance. This is especially important when dealing with things that are out of our control, such as other people’s actions. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes,

The path of entering and blending in moments when you feel attacked or threatened in some way obviously involves taking certain risks, since you can’t know what the protagonist will do next nor how you will respond. But if you are committed to meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as possible, and with a sense of your own integrity and balance, fresh and imaginative solutions that might lead to a new level of understanding and greater harmony often come to mind…

Kabat-Zinn suggests that we apply this attitude even when we text or email. Be “in your body as you use your devices, …  thus being in the present moment…construct texts mindfully, with full awareness of what you are doing. If you are responding to tons of email, …pace yourself…” We can tell whether we are responding effectively by the feelings that result. Do you feel balanced and relaxed, or angry, fearful and imbalanced? Olpin & Hesson say that “Responding ineffectively leads to a chaotic inner environment.” Responding effectively can lead to feelings of growth, and potentially better relationships.

Sydney_147It’s not easy to compose each text and email as if we were sitting down with a pen, paper, and all the time in the world. The world around us insists that we rush and multi-task, that everything we own have multiple functions, that every thought and emotion be shared. Can we resist just a little? Take a breath, and decide, “I don’t need to say what I’m thinking right this moment. I can do better than that. I can be better than that.”

 

Choosing between this and that

Did you ever balance on a see-saw when you were a child? There was always the challenge of working with the other person to find that perfect point where you were hovering in a horizontal line for a second or two, before one of you fell, a victim of weight and gravity.

The word seesaw may have come from the French words ci-ça, which mean this and that, or perhaps from the back and forth action of an actual saw. The imagery of the seesaw feels appropriate for a lot of the choices we face as we look for emotional balance, especially in how to respond to what life throws at us. We swing back and forth between options: On this side, we have pessimism; on that side, optimism. On this side, we have anger; on that side, equanimity. On this side, we have judgment and denial; on that side, acceptance. This, that, this, that.seesaw_balance

How do you choose the appropriate response in any given situation? Yesterday when I was talking about changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk to reduce stress, a listener challenged me on the concept of always looking for the silver lining. She was right to do so, because optimism isn’t always the correct response, especially if it keeps you from seeing a situation with clarity. There are certain instances where it’s better to be pessimistic because it keeps you cautious. For instance, you don’t want your airline pilot to be too much of an optimist!

Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism”, writes that optimism should be a flexible, situational choice. “You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.” He goes on to say that just because those of us who are not born optimists can learn how to be more optimistic, doesn’t mean that we lose our values or good judgment. It just means that we now have a tool we can choose to use when it is to our benefit.

Responses aren’t always either-or. If I choose not to respond in anger, that doesn’t mean I opt for complete passivity either. If we keep in mind the back and forth motion of a saw, we see there is a range of potential responses. We often find equilibrium in the middle, at the fulcrum point of the seesaw. The key is to give ourselves time to make the choice. It’s that pause, that “take-a-breath” moment that’s the hardest part for me. Instead of reacting with anger, can I ask a question that gives me a better understanding of the situation? If I discover something that I didn’t know, will that little bit of extra information keep me from making a snap judgment and help me respond thoughtfully instead of reacting harshly?

Learning to choose between responses takes time and practice. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart recommend this sequence:

  • Stop
  • Breathe: Release physical tension
  • Reflect: What are your automatic thoughts, irrational beliefs, or distorted thinking styles? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is it really true?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Is it to my advantage to think this way?
  • Am I catastrophizing?
  • Is there another way to look at the situation?
  • Can I handle it?

Thoughts, feelings and behaviors all influence each other, in a feedback loop. By questioning habitual thought patterns, we can subtly shift how we feel, and eventually, how we act. Think of it as the way you might shift weight on your end of the seesaw, to keep it balanced or to let it fall. It’s your choice.