In a matter-of-fact manner my sister-in-law once said a surprising thing: “When people get angry, I don’t get angry back.” To her, this appeared to be her modus operandi. For many others it is not. When someone gets angry, we get angry back. (Is this true of you?)
What if you remembered that you get to choose whether you want to respond or react? That you don’t have to be driven by the more primitive functions of your brain? Three steps enable you to choose to respond.
First, notice how you first react. When someone gets angry, reactions usually contain three elements: physiological (increased heart rate, tightened muscles), emotional (fear and anger), and mental (thoughts such as, “What the hell?” Or, “I’ll show him!” Or, “How can I get out of here?”) The physiological tends to start first, followed by the emotional, and then the mental. Thoughts arise to justify or explain emotions. (This all happens so quickly that the sequence is rarely if ever discernible.)
Noticing one or all three of these, without judgment, tends to slow or stop a reactive spiraling upward that occurs as each element feeds the other (e.g., I notice that my stomach is jumpy, that I feel wary, and that I am thinking fearful or critical thoughts. The last exacerbates my wariness that in turn further upsets my stomach and so on).
The second step is to remember that you have a choice. You don’t have to be driven by your reactions. You can choose how you want to respond. What are your options? Stay silent, restate what the person has said to make sure you understand it, inquire as to the source of the other person’s upset, or ask for a “time out” to calm down.
The final step is to remember your intention(s) for this specific conversation and for interacting with others in general.
Your choice makes a difference. Fear and anger are highly contagious emotions. When someone gets upset in a meeting at work or in your community, you can feed the fires by reacting or dampen them by responding. Responding involves (1) being aware of your body sensations, emotions, and thoughts; (2) remembering that you can choose how you want to respond; and (3) finding a way to respond that is congruent with your intentions. (I am making a wild assumption here that your intentions are constructive and positive.)
Given the combative and divisive political atmosphere in which we are now living, it will be easy to unconsciously develop a similar atmosphere at work and in our communities. It is worth making an extra effort to be aware, remember we get to choose, and reaffirm positive intentions so that we are able to respond to people instead of reacting to them. I have yet to see a reactive and combative interaction lead to anything good in the short- or long-run.
Perhaps we can all make our modus operandi that of my sister-in-law’s: “When people get angry, I don’t get angry back.”
Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available. Click here to purchase it.