Have you ever been the unfortunate victim of a fender bender? Maybe you were stopped at a traffic light, the car behind you approaching a bit too quickly to stop in time and their front end meets the back end of your car. What typically happened after that? How did you react? Was it positive?
Webster defines a reaction as “the way someone acts or feels in response to something that happens, is said, etc.; an action or attitude that shows disagreement with or disapproval of someone or something.” And response as “something that is said or written as a reply to something; something that is done as a reaction to something else.” The words seem fairly interchangeable in the dictionary however, when we replace “react” with “respond” our brains focus on the outcome rather than on the emotions. This shift allows us the space to manage our emotions and create a solution as opposed to reacting to our emotions and potentially creating more problems.
Managing our emotions is a key component of Emotional Intelligence. Although there are different definitions of emotional intelligence, it generally encompasses three key characteristics: the ability to be aware of and regulate one’s emotions, navigate relationships with others, and be empathic. If this doesn’t describe you, the good news is you can learn to be more emotionally intelligent. According to Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, “emotional intelligence is a flexible set of skills that can be acquired and improved with practice.”
How do we start regulating our emotions so that we can be proactive and solution oriented instead of reactive?
EMBRACE YOUR EMOTIONS.
I have this friend (ok, so it’s me) who is highly emotional. This, in itself, isn’t negative; being emotional allows us to connect with people and ourselves in meaningful ways (one component of emotional intelligence). But, even so, it bothered me for most of my life that my emotional reactions seemed to be more extreme than other people’s. That is until I stumbled on an article about the Highly Sensitive Person personality type. Dr. Elaine Aron has been researching this personality type (known as HSP) since the early 90’s and has authored several books describing, well, me. Is it you too?
HSPs feel emotion – deeply. This can be extraordinary when it’s positive but it can be overwhelming if the emotion is negative. HSPs are empathic by nature so it’s not only their own emotions that they feel, but those of the people that they are interacting with which can exponentially affect their emotional energy. You don’t have to be a HSP to relate to this. When most people get into a highly emotional situation their decisions have the potential to be driven by emotions, rather than by the conscious choices that they make. Which means that we are more likely to react instead of respond. Recognizing that we are highly emotional, whether by personality or situation, opens up the opportunity to create strategies to identify and separate our emotions from situations so that we can think more clearly.
THE JACK SHEPHARD METHOD.
I am a big fan of LOST so I jump on any chance I get to reference the show. In the pilot episode Jack meets Kate in the jungle after the plane crash and asks her to stitch up a wound on his back. When Kate hesitates and asks why Jack doesn’t seem to be afraid, Jack shares with her a story about a surgery he performed on a 16 year old girl during his residency. He recounts that at the end of the long surgery he accidentally cut the base of his patient’s spinal cord and became overcome by terror. He tells Kate that he made a choice to let the fear in, but only for five seconds. He counted slowly one, two, three, four, five and then he willed the fear away and finished the surgery. It’s a powerful moment and one of the show’s best scenes.
This strategy is as old as time, but it works only if you choose to let it work. I tried it for years. I would count to ten but that wasn’t long enough. So I counted twice to ten, in two different languages. Then I added a third. It wasn’t until I saw the Jack “count to five” scene that I could do it. I was able to visualize Jack counting. I am a visual learner so this worked for me. Find a method that works for you and give it a go. The rote counting interrupts your emotions, separates you from the moment, and triggers your brain to start creating a strategy to resolve the situation.
CREATE A STRATEGY.
Winning teams don’t show up on game day without a plan. And you shouldn’t either. Like any good sports team, you want to have multiple game plans to choose from, for both a good offense and defense. Although you can’t think of every emotionally charged scenario that you might run in to, you can think of different ways you can generally respond. For example, if you know that your boss has a confronting style of communication which upsets you, being prepared with a plan can help you stay focused during meetings.
When you have the benefit of foresight, know your agenda and be strategic in your communication. If you plan on asking your boss for a raise would you just wander into her office one day and start the conversation? Probably not. Your goal is a raise. And just like any goal, there are steps you should take to reach it. Map out the steps, acknowledge your challenges and opportunities, anticipate roadblocks and see the outcome clearly. The more prepared you are entering into the conversation the more likely you will be calm, focused and successful. Viewing it as a process allows us to be intellectually invested rather than emotionally attached. This is not to suggest that you should interact like a robot. Expressing your emotions is healthy, being emotionally reactive is not.
CHANGE YOUR LANGUAGE.
A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.
~ Mark Twain
When I used to get overly emotional or highly reactive I would use words like “crazy” to describe myself. In fact, I almost named this article “stop the crazy” until I realized that I would just be perpetuating the belief that over-reacting is crazy. It’s not. We have all done it and will likely do it again. It happens. The key is to limit how often it happens. One way is to change the language you use both to describe yourself as well the situations in which we find ourselves. If you start to get reactive tell yourself (out loud if you have to) how you want to be. You may be really angry but say ‘I am fine’ or ‘I am ready to talk rationally’. If you tell yourself that you are losing control of the situation, you will. Instead, tell yourself that have everything under control. Your brain will catch up. The language that we use influences us more than most people realize. Change your language and you will change your life.
CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR.
Your behavior affects you as much as your language. Non-verbal body language influences our emotions, how we approach situations and the way other people respond to us. Most of this takes place subconsciously but if we can train ourselves to be more aware of our physical state we can influence the outcomes of the situations we experience.
Similarly, you can change your state of mind by changing your body. Let’s say that someone tells you something that you don’t want to hear. How does your facial expression change? How about your posture or your arms and legs? Being aware of these, often subtle, shifts will allow you to quickly assess your body and interrupt negative reactions. In her 2012 article “The Ultimate Guide to Body Language”, Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne provides insight on understanding the effect your non-verbal behaviors have on your emotions. By unlocking this connection you can learn to adjust your emotions by adjusting your body.
BLAME THE GAME, NOT THE PLAYER.
Have you ever been driving along minding your own business and suddenly a car cuts you off? It’s not really the car that cut you off but the person driving it, right? What do you say when this happens? I ask this question when I am teaching the chapter on Social Psychology in my Introduction to Psychology class. I can’t repeat what most of my students say their reactions are – it would be NSFW. But every once in a while I have student who says that he would think that the driver is in a hurry.
Most of us don’t do that. We don’t attribute blame to external factors when assessing someone else’s behavior. We blame the person’s personality (are they stupid?) instead of the circumstances (they must not have realized their exit was next). But when it’s us, we do the opposite. It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error – but unless you’re taking my final you don’t need to remember that. The point is, we often assign character traits to someone else to explain their behavior instead of considering the situation. And we react accordingly. Thinking that someone is bad causes us to react differently than if we think they may a good person in a bad situation.
Think about a time when you had too much going on, not enough time in the day to take care of yourself, and little or poor sleep. Suddenly you realize that your emotions are like a ticking time bomb just waiting for that perfect situation to explode. Experts acknowledge that being aware of both your state of mind and the state of your body can lead to a healthier life. Chronic stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, or not enough exercise can exacerbate our emotional state, especially when it’s negative. And your state of mind can conversely affect your health.
In our fast paced world we need to be proactive in decreasing the effects of not taking care of ourselves by creating good habits. Here are some ideas:
- Eat healthy foods.
- Find an exercise that you can do regularly (even in your office). Think you can’t? Check out The 10 Best Exercises To Do At Your Desk by Forbes.
- Practice mindfulness. In a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed piece, Maria Konnikova cited University of Wisconsin research which indicated that practicing mindfulness on a daily basis could result in “positive, approach-oriented emotional states”.
- Use stress management techniques.
- Get a good night’s sleep.
This isn’t a 100% guarantee that you won’t caught up in the next emotionally charged situation, but it does increase the likelihood that you will respond in an effective way.
PRACTICE WHEN THE STAKES ARE LOW.
Last week I experienced a fender bender. I was at a stop sign, the other driver backed out of his garage and hit me. And if you had asked me six months ago how I would have reacted I would have predicted that I would have been really angry and reacted in kind. But I didn’t. My reaction wasn’t a reaction at all; it was a response. I got out of my car, asked if he was ok and exchanged information. We actually had a pleasant conversation. And a week later my car is repaired, which was my goal.
I didn’t get to the point where I was to be calm and respond with a strategy in emotional situations by accident. When my car was hit, I was as surprised as anyone that I didn’t react. What I realized afterwards is that I have integrated these strategies. I have practiced over and over when the stakes were low so when I was confronted with a highly emotional situation I handled it by responding, not reacting. Find situations in which you can try these strategies out – over and over again. Ask for support while you learn these new skills. Encourage others to try them too. Imagine how much more you could accomplish if you focus on the end game by responding thoughtfully instead of reacting emotionally in the moment.