How do you stop your emotions from shifting into “fight” mode and verbal violence? I understand the principles of Making It Safe, but often, I only become aware that I am in “violence” well into the conversation—when my own emotions are already heated and boiling over. The wisest choice at that point seems to be to get out of the space and conversation where I can get my emotions under control, but, by then, the damage is usually done. While I have greatly improved over the years and am far more aware of my own bullying nature (intellectual or otherwise), I still struggle to change.
Upset & Unaware
Dear Upset & Unaware,
Oh yes, I have been there. I have been in that conversation where I said something and as the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Why am I saying this? And with this tone?” I could literally feel the expression on my face, and it was not one of curiosity or calm but rather of condemnation. So yes, I have been where you are—having raced down a path to anger, judgment, and verbal violence. Inevitably, in those moments, I think to myself, “Wait. I teach something about this. Oh, yes. It’s called Learn to Look. Learn to Look for when a conversation turns crucial because the sooner you get back into dialogue, the lower the cost.”
But sometimes learning to look seems to come too late. I don’t want to simply learn to look for the signs that a conversation is going off the rails so that I can course-correct quickly. I want to avoid going off the rails at all. So the question for me is not: “How can I recognize earlier when I have been triggered?” but, “How can I not get triggered at all?”
So that seems pretty crazy, right? Not get triggered? Ever? Impossible. In real life, stuff happens. Irritations abound. Rough edges push up against all sides of our lives. The triggers are there and will always be there. Yet the question remains, “How can I avoid being triggered?”
I have two practical ideas to offer you, but, before I get to them, I want to add a frame to the discussion and a challenge for everyone reading this.
Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” This is the idea I am fascinated by—that we need not wait until our response has begun and then somehow catch ourselves because we are responding in a way that is overly forceful, or angry, or violent. If we learn to see that space, to expand it, to live in it, then we can respond in ways of our choosing, rather than simply reacting. The question is then, what can we do to enlarge and inhabit that space more often?
There is no one right answer to this question. I have two ideas that I believe are helpful. However, just as we teach in Change Anything, no one can tell you what your Vital Behavior will be for a change you need to make. Everyone’s Vital Behaviors will be different and diverse.
A lot of people read this newsletter (over 350,000), and there will be a lot of different answers regarding how we can enlarge and inhabit the space between stimulus and response. So I challenge you to share your own answer with us in the comments below. What do you do to enlarge and inhabit this space? I am looking forward to seeing the wisdom of this particular crowd.
And, without further ado, two ideas to help.
1. Morally engage—all the time. In his new book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, psychologist Albert Bandura makes the point that we are not bad people but that we behave badly (Want to win a signed copy of this book? Read to the end to learn how to enter). And when we act in ways or treat people in ways that are counter to our moral compass, we use a variety of strategies to disengage from that morality and thereby reduce our inner conflict. Said another way, our poor actions are not a result of moral defect but of moral slumber. If we want to behave better, we need to wake ourselves up.
Here is one example of how you might do that: Write a note to yourself that awakens you to your values and then review it regularly. Write down what it means to you to be a good person or why you care about other people. Put it on a card that your carry in your wallet or a Post-It note on your computer monitor. Put it in your phone. Set an alarm to read it regularly. Wake yourself up again and again to who you are and who you want to be.
The note in my office that is directly beneath my monitor screen and that I read several times a day is, “Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved.” This is meaningful to me because I am a problem-solver. A fast problem-solver. Far too often, when I am in problem-solving mode, people become barriers between me and the solution. But while it is true that in moments of moral disengagement, I can become so focused on a problem and solution that I forget people, it is also true that I have a deep, abiding respect for humans and humanity. I love people and I want to be the person who connects with other people. It is not about changing who I am, but simply reminding myself of who I am.
2. Eat for energy. Bet you weren’t expecting that one! I just finished reading Jim Loehr’s, The Power of Full Engagement. Among the many takeaways for me was that the energy we bring to an interaction impacts the outcome. Dr. Loehr’s goal is to help people learn to manage their energy in a way that improves interactions, impact, and outcomes.
I recently received some very valuable 360 feedback. As I analyzed and mapped this feedback, I realized that some of my interactions don’t always go so well. Turns out, the interactions where I am abrupt, short-tempered, or irritated occur between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Really. It’s uncanny, but not surprising. I eat breakfast and lunch early and by 4:00 p.m. I’m usually running on low blood sugar. Compounding my low energy is the fact that I have usually been sitting for hours on end by this point. So when someone comes in for a crucial conversation, it is not surprising that I don’t always handle it well.
The solution is, in part, to eat in ways that provide sustained, useful energy for me throughout the day. Basically, eat often and eat light. I started having an apple or a piece of cheese or a handful of nuts about 3:00 p.m.—before I start feeling tired or irritable. And then I get up and walk around and take some deep breaths. I have noticed that when I do this consistently, my interactions are far more effective and far more kind.
So, there you have it—a frame, challenge, and two ideas. I am looking forward to seeing what other ideas are out there!
Best of luck,
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