“Buddy, please don’t ever do that to me again.” Despite the drama of the moment, his quiet self-reflection created a pause, some space, to be able to shift from reflexivity to greater choice. Rather than act on his initial impulse, which was to reactively yell, “Get in the car! How can you be so irresponsible and disrespectful? You’re so grounded!” Consciously aware of his choices around how to respond to his teenage son who had missed his curfew by several hours, and still hadn’t been heard from. Grateful he hadn’t compounded the situation by getting into a shouting match with his child, or creating barriers between them that can be hard to repair.
Does this sound like you? Or are you still jumping to an impulsive, reactive response?
We all have moments where we bypass our higher selves, allowing fear to turn to anger, instead of compassion. If you find yourself jumping to anger more often than understanding, there’s still time, you can change your patterns and rehabilitate your relationships, at work, at home, and with friends.
If you have ever wondered how you can practice widening the space between stimulus and response, and most importantly, be able to access it at will, you’re not alone. While organizational shifts in the past few years have placed increased value on soft skills like emotional intelligence, many companies haven’t provided their teams with the necessary resources to develop these skills, which has left high-achieving performers in unfamiliar territory.
You can learn these skills, like everything else, they require thought, practice, and some guidance. I can help.
Creating Space Starts With Self-Reflection
The never-ending bombardment of stimuli in our lives will never change, but what can and does change is how we choose to respond to them. In learning to widen the gap between stimulus and response, we not only increase our capacity and ability to choose how we want to engage in situations and the world, but also enhance our ability to learn and grow as leaders.
The shift from impulse to greater choice actually starts with self-reflection. While we may think the goal is to widen the gap, and in a sense it is, the real goal is to create a more resilient experience. One of the tools available to us is self-awareness, which leads to choice, and that creates the gap.
Frantically calling his son’s cell phone with no response as the hours ticked away, my client’s anger intensified, as did his concern and desire to know his son’s whereabouts. Finally, learning he was at a friend’s house, he jumped in his car to go and pick-up his son. While stopped at a red light, my client asked himself “What are you so angry about?” And his response surprised him, “I’m scared to death.” As soon as he allowed himself to say the words, his anger started to dissipate. A key moment of self-reflection in which he was able to feel his fear and recognize that leading with the anger, would have only resulted in an argument, and likely his son shutting down and/or retreating, rather than what he wanted, to ensure his son was ok and that he didn’t ever do this again.
Given his emotional awareness, my client was able to take a breath, create a pause, rather than act on his initial impulse, a counterproductive reaction that would have acerbated any tension already in their relationship. Instead, the space allowed him to recognize the actual source of his anger—he was worried sick about his son’s safety and well-being. Cycling through the terrifying scenarios about what might have happened to his child, he felt the fear, which he didn’t actually want to do. The difficult thoughts and feelings so uncomfortable, it became clear to him why anger had been the more palatable, default emotion. The pause also providing him the opportunity to realize his son was neither deliberately irresponsible nor willfully challenging his authority; he was just having fun at a friend’s house, and lost track of time.
Given his self-awareness as he pulled up to the house, my client was able to consciously choose his emotional reaction–“Buddy, please don’t ever do that to me again.” Rather than reflexively yelling what initially popped into his mind–“Get in the car! How can you be so irresponsible and disrespectful? You’re so grounded!” His chosen response fueling the healthy parts of their relationship, rather than leaning in with the anger, which was really just a self-protective measure against his feelings of fear. Under different circumstances, he might have chosen to yell at his son, if he consciously believed it was the only way he might have been heard, but then it would have been a strategic application of his authority and agency, rather than a flailing, spontaneous reaction.
The Reaction And Action
Despite hearing the tone of his dad’s voice on the phone, demanding he stay where he was, and feeling sacred himself, when he got in the car he gave his father a hug while replying, “I’m sorry I scared you, Dad.” Witnessing his son’s loving reaction, his anger dissipated further and my client realized he didn’t have to be upset anymore. The result was a positive interaction, which taught his brain something really important, that his son will actually respond, even though he may see things differently, and may not necessarily be aware of his father’s direct experience. Importantly, my client’s reaction gave his son space to demonstrate that he loves his dad and cares about his happiness, rather than the narrative my client had created about his son’s willful, disrespectful behavior intended to challenge his authority and infuriate him. Consequently, the next time he tells himself a similar story, he can recall this encounter, and say compassionately to himself, “I bet he doesn’t even realize that I’m worried sick.” which is called trust, or the benefit of the doubt.
Open, Honest Questions: An Additional Tool
In addition to self-awareness, open, honest questions are another tool that help us widen the gap between stimulus and response. Designed to interrupt our reactive response, they thrust us back on to ourselves and into our internal experience, rather than the externalized version, where the focus is outward–if only you were different than I would feel better and suffer less. Creating space for the truist answers to emerge, open, honest questions are ones we genuinely don’t know the answers to, rather than leading questions, ones with an agenda, or closed-ended, yes/no ones. They can be challenging to execute, requiring us to pause in order to be able to ask a question from a place of genuine curiosity, like “Buddy, what’s the experience like for you, having fun at your friend’s house, while also knowing you have a curfew?” Rather than pointedly making an observation, like “What’s going on in that head of yours, willfully disregarding your curfew like that?!” The former approach allowing him to conclude it’s a difference in the way their brains are wired–he can be alert to two competing priorities, but his son, still a child, gets caught up in the moment and loses all track of time.
Safe, Respectful, Open, Honest Workplaces
If we can marry the self-awareness (“I’m angry”) with open, honest questions (“what’s happening here?”) in the gap, we start to create a sense of trust, which also leads to greater resilience. What my client and his son demonstrated with their actions and reactions, was how to feed the better parts of their relationship—possibly being able to give his son the benefit of the doubt the next time there’s a stimulus, and strengthening their relationship’s ability to withstand future difficult conversations and challenges.
As leaders, if we can give the space to our colleagues, that my client was able to give to his son to be able to express his genuine wish for his dad’s happiness and well-being, when they’re overwhelmed, lost, struggling, or expressing their wishes, then the team as a whole starts to arrive at a place of respect. Rather than engaging in a way that compounds the situation, puts our colleagues on the defensive, causing them to shut down and/or retreat, or creates barriers that can be hard to repair.
When we create a safe, respectful, open, honest workplace, the result is trust–a consequence, rather than the goal. If we can create a workplace culture where the gap between stimulus and response is wide enough that we’re able to show our colleagues that we care about their feelings, than their ability to trust our genuine concern for their well-being goes up, because we’ve demonstrated it. When we exercise our capacity for open, honest questions, it sends a signal that we’re accepting of whatever their responses are, which is far more powerful than saying forcefully, “Trust me!”, where the impulse is to do the opposite.
As you learn to widen the gap between stimulus and response and practice open, honest questions, start small, just noticing “I’m angry,” rather than ANGER, is a critical step.