I burnt the battered pine recipe box. It’d become obsolete for me in the era of online recipes and no longer using those index cards from 30-odd years ago. I added the box to our fire one cold winter afternoon; it crackled, roared and burned bright for a few minutes, then whoosh, it was gone.
So, what’s the point here? I don’t regret burning the box. But watching it quickly disintegrate got me thinking about reactive, heated exchanges between people and the regrets that often follow.
Reactivity is common, it happens all the time in us: someone says or does something that triggers us, and we react, either mentally, emotionally, physically or verbally. Or in all those ways.
A reactive face to face argument, phone, text or Facebook exchange can heat up quickly, combust, and then reduce a relationship to ashes. Or barring that, needing significant repair.
Do you wanna do that?
Recognizing when we’re too heated, upset or triggered to communicate well and need to take time to calm down and think things through is one of the most vital skills we can learn in ourselves and in our relationships.
Victor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
“Respond, Rather Than React”
I didn’t create this phrase but find it a vital little mantra with myself and with clients. Stopping to pause to sort out our reactions and thoughts and then responding in a way that is neither defensive or blaming and keeps communication open is a learnable skill. It is hard but doable.
Here are some steps to consider:
- Stop when triggered or upset by something someone did or said.
- Notice what’s happening in your body – where is your body letting you know you are angry, scared or upset?
- Breathe into those spaces to calm them a little.
- Notice what you are telling yourself – the storyline that automatically pops up when you feel hurt, misunderstood or blamed.
- Make an intention not to respond until you can do so with kindness, honesty, and non-reactivity. That may mean initially saying something like, “I’ve got to sort out my response but I’ll be in touch soon.”
- Decide if this a battle worth fighting – get in touch with your deepest values and make a decision whether or not this warrants a reaction. (This is different than avoiding difficult conversations with silence.)
- Be curious – about your own reactivity – where it might come from – and also what might be happening for the person who just fueled your fire. Remember that you are only responsible for your actions and words, not those of others.
- Think about how you can respond in the form of an “I” statement. “I” statements are effective, and for more about them click here.
- Practice your response out loud. Run it by someone you trust, if you can.
- Then, respond, owning your own thoughts and feelings instead of attacking, blaming or criticizing. Stick to that script over and over.
- See what this does for your next interaction with anyone….
This process takes practice (a lot of it!) and can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort you make. And there’s more to developing good communication and relationship skills, like learning to truly listen and reflect back to the other person what you have heard, which can often reduce conflict in the first place.
And, about Digital Communication…..
Social media and digital devices make it effortless to pop someone a message. And they make it easier than ever to leave a trail of misunderstanding, hurt and relational damage. Text and email messages are one-dimensional…we don’t have eye contact, body language or sometimes even the context in which something is being said to help us more accurately “read” what someone is saying. I still think it’s best to save the important stuff for a face-to-face conversation or at the least, a phone call. I know, I know – some of you are muttering – Brenda, you are SO outdated.
But I say try it, be thoughtful about what messages can be sent digitally and which ones can’t. Whatever you decide, respond versus react.
I guarantee fewer relationships will get burnt.
Note: One of the best blogs I’ve found on learning about and developing relationships and practicing non-violent, thoughtful communication skills is that of LaShelle Lowe-Chardé on her blog at Wise Heart. If improving relationships is important to you, check it out.