Moving from Reaction to Response in 3 Steps

At the start of the year, I mentioned that my key tool for creating the 2018 (and, in many ways, the life) I most want is the Pause. I wanted to circle back around to it because it’s one of those things that’s really easy to say and pretty doggone challenging to do.

Refresher: The Pause is a space we can create after a stimulus during which we can consider how we’d like to respond rather than doing what we do most of the time, which is to react.

We’ve got all sorts of nature and nurture mucking up the path toward Pausing and away from reactivity, the fight/flight/freeze part of our brains left over from our tangles with saber tooth tigers and a current social norm of rush, rush, rush.

There’s also that thing where our reactions feel like obvious, unimpeachable Truth in the moment. I remember getting a weird, opaque text from a poet friend years ago and I was immediately frustrated, “Why can’t she just say what she means? Why does it always have to be so freaking poetic?!”

Turned out that she was recommending some music. What I took as obscure poetic language was, in fact, just the name of the band. Yeah. Not for a second after reading that text did I consider that my interpretation had been wrong.

That’s the nature of reactivity. It’s the same mechanism that saves us from traffic accidents by getting us to slam on the breaks a micro-second before we’ve actually processed the person turning out in front of us. The practice of the Pause is about noticing the many times during each and every day when reactivity doesn’t serve us.

That’s where responsiveness comes in.

Step 1 to Pausing: Notice you’re wanting to react.

Sometimes, when we’re first learning these skills, it’s not about noticing you want to react but rather that you did react and now you’re Monday quarterbacking your reaction and wishing you had behaved differently.

Try, hard as you can, hard as it is, to observe that wish for a different behavior without punishing yourself for imperfection. Make amends with the person if possible; make amends with yourself regardless. And then gather that lesson up and celebrate it as the kind of repetition required to build this mindfulness.

Once you notice you want to react before you actually do, this is the perfect time to step away. If there’s another person immediately involved, say whatever will allow you to take that time. For a loved or trusted one, it might be as simple as, “I’m feeling stressed about this and want to step away until I can respond calmly.” In a less safe scenario, you might take a bathroom break or suddenly have an urgent call. (Yes, I just advocated lying and yes, I think for the sake of not reacting like a jerk-face, it’s worth a wee untruth like this.)

Step 2 to Pausing: Make time for it.

Hours would be great; seconds will do. Five minutes of Pause is plenty challenging for most of us; I even have a three minute timer on my phone for just this very reason.

Pausing is literal. We have to slow down for a moment in order to examine what’s going on inside of ourselves. Otherwise, we just pile on more stimulus which positions us to either rush past the discomfort and let it join the bin of unresolved bits deep within us (and those don’t just biodegrade in that compost heap, I’m sorry to say. They photodegrade – they need light to break down) or our discomfort grows as new stimulus becomes gas-soaked rags on that fire.

A few things I do while I pause:

  • I sit. Sometimes, this is in the form of meditation complete with focus and my hands just so and a particular meditative technique in the hopper. Sometimes, I literally just sit. Quietly. With my phone silenced, no background noise going, no books open. Just sitting.
  • I tune into my discomfort. Our discomfort has the damndest way of making itself known as physical sensation which gives us a place to focus and bring some curiosity. Just noticing and breathing into that part of ourselves can bring up some mighty juicy wisdom we’ve got tucked away within us. (A really fantastic technique for this is called Focusing which I learned from the fabulous Sandy Jahmi Burg.)
  • I jot a few notes. Just let it flow. Try not to self-judge or -edit. The Morning Pages free-write exercise from The Artists Way is a great approach.
  • I draw a picture. I’ve long been one to describe things with goofy little sketches and Sam Bennett inspired me to take it farther with her 5-Minute Art exercises in Start Right Where You Are. Just last weekend, I drew a Vinn diagram to explore some discomfort I was feeling after an interaction with a friend in which I discovered that my reaction had way more to do with my old baggage and junk than anything she had say or the way she said it.

Step 3 to Pausing: Respond, if doing so is valuable.

Will I tell my friend about my discomfort and Vinn diagram stemming from our interaction? Yes, because a tiny wee sliver of it is info that I think will be useful for our friendship and possibly even for her communication in general. Without the urgency of my reactivity, though, I’ll say it all a whole lot more effectively.

There have been other times, though, when I’ve decided to say/do nothing because what I found in my exploration was that 100% of my discomfort was mine and unrelated to others. Once in a while, I also find myself in interactions where the relationship doesn’t feel safe enough for that kind of sharing.

Use discernment. Your best self knows what to do.

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