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Beyond Reflex – Mastering The Art Of Response

Written by: Denise Blanc, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Denise Blanc

“That’s just the way I am” is a statement that I sometimes hear from clients, or the words from my mother still ring in my ears, “honey, people just don’t change.” But new research from the fields of emotional intelligence and neuroscience tells a different story. We learn that we can choose the way that we wish to think, feel, and behave in any given situation. We do not have to remain captive to our habitual reactions.

A hand at the sea.

The Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl was an incredible example with his ability to intentionally choose his response. He famously wrote “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms; to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 


He chose to stay attuned to his purpose and to make meaning even from his suffering. Soon after his release, he wrote his seminal book, A Man’s Search for Meaning about his psychological experience in Nazi concentrations camps.


If we can choose, why do so many of us remain captive to our patterns?


One explanation comes from unpacking the following expression, “We are what we repeatedly do” a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. It is with our repeated actions, that our behaviors become embedded, automatic, and habitual so that it is easy to continue to do what we’ve always done and much harder to choose something different. And that is how we continue to stay stuck in patterns that don’t serve us.


Our brains work hard to keep us functioning and to make everything fast and efficient – but they also take short cuts. They are wired to create and follow patterns, which conserves energy but then keeps us caught in habitual patterns.


In the past, it was not believed that adults could create new neural connections. But exciting new research with MRI’s on our brain’s neuroplasticity proves that our brains can re-wire and make new connections and can do so for as long as we are alive. We can keep learning, making choices and new choices until we die! 


All that sounds great, but …


How do we interrupt our habitual patterns?


The best and simplest way that I have discovered to interrupt our patterned responses is by practicing The Pause. 


The pause is a brief interruption from our habitual response. It can be done by simply taking three conscious deep breaths to slow down our nervous system. This gives us enough time to settle and intentionally choose another pathway if we wish. All we need to do is notice our in-breath as our chest expands and our out-breath as we contract – and we start to feel more connected to our bodies and to our environment. 


The pause helps us to become more present, less judgmental, and curious. 

 

With a pause, we may start to see our situation from new angles, where our same situation looks and feels different. More choices become available, and now we can intentionally choose how we wish to respond. Again, this quote from Victor Frankl:


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.”


From reaction to response


Meet Brian, a brilliant yet hot-tempered professor who had the habit of unleashing his anger whenever he felt his values were being compromised or with those that he judged as inept, dishonest, or unfair. His reactions were quick and intense. And I was once the recipient of his anger as his new coach who was brought on to address this very issue. I was sent a blistering email in response to a last-minute request I had given him to complete some paperwork. In truth, my timing was a little insensitive for which I had apologized, but I received the full experience of what so many others felt when the butt of his displeasure.


He winced when I shared what it felt like to receive his angry email “blast.” I got the feeling that few people had honestly shared with him what it felt like to be on the other end of his anger. He admitted that he didn’t want this reactiveness to become his identity and he didn’t want to feel so stressed out all the time. Upon sharing Frankl’s quote, he recognized there was very little space between the stimulus and his responses. He was curious to see if he could change that.


 In our work together, we focused on building self-awareness of his patterns and expanding the space between stimulus and response. We regularly practiced “the pause” in our coaching, and he was eager to incorporate it at work which was where he was most reactive. He began practicing several times a day.


I also suggested the book Atomic Habits by James Clear to help him to start chunking down some of the bigger habits he wished to change into simple behaviors he could incorporate in his life. He learned that even small habit changes could make a big difference. To his credit, Brian was highly motivated to work on his behavior.

  • He started by becoming aware of his patterns when/where he became activated since recognition is an essential first step. He tracked the thoughts in his head and noticed how he justified his anger, “their request is just crazy and unfair” He tracked his feelings and sensations, becoming acutely aware of the heat and adrenaline coursing through his body. He noticed how quickly he tended to respond when he was activated, e.g. sending off an angry email.

  • He began to incorporate the pause to help him slow down his reactiveness.

  • He set a goal of asking more questions which was another kind of pause, since it stopped him from immediately reacting emotionally. He proudly wrote to me that he began to delete many of his reactive emails before pressing “send.” 

  • He noticed that when he changed his thoughts, it slowed down his reaction time. By changing his thoughts, he changed his emotions, and this changed his behavior. He started noticing that he left work feeling less stressed out.

  • We discussed how by changing word usage he could also shift how he felt. Instead of describing people as “crazy or insensitive,” he substituted words like, “that was an odd request, I wonder what was going on with them.” He was surprised to see that substituting different phrases he could significantly shift his reaction. 


Brian began to see changes in himself– even his boss and employees agreed when they were asked in a follow-up survey. Will Brian ever become a calm, even tempered person who rarely gets riled up? I rather doubt it, but now he has more self-awareness and the tools to interrupt his patterns. To hold on to these changes he will need to practice them often so that they become embedded and habitual – but in a good way.


Concluding thoughts


When we practice “the pause” we interrupt our reactive chain reaction, so we can redirect and be more deliberate of the pathway we wish to take. We take control of our thinking, emotions, and behavior. With practice, our reactions to emotionally triggering situations lessens but may never go away completely. But what does change is that we now can more quickly catch our reactions and then get to choose what we want to say, do, and feel next. 


Follow me on LinkedIn and visit my website for more info where I share easy to implement tools and practices to improve communication.

Denise Blanc Brainz Magazine
 

Denise Blanc, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Denise Blanc, MA, ACC is a Certified Emotional Intelligence Coach, Mediator, and Senior Organization Development Consultant. An expert in communication, she coaches, speaks, teaches, and writes at the intersection of Emotional Intelligence, Conflict Transformation, and Mindfulness. Her noble goal is to inspire candor, courage, and compassionate communication to create a more just and caring world.


Denise is the founder of River Logic Partners, a leadership coaching and consulting firm. She has been the chief architect of numerous leadership academies over her career, winning multiple awards for her leadership design, e.g. The International Spirit a Work Award, "Best Practices for Creating New Leaders." She has over two decades as a student and teacher of mindfulness, and currently teaches programs for Shambhala, a global Buddhist organization, in areas of social justice and race.


Denise is the author of RiverLogic: Tools to Transform Resistance and Create Flow in all of our Relationships.


Whenever possible, Denise is hiking the hills and swimming in natural bodies of water around the world.

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