So recently

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So recently, have you:


Judged, Criticised or blamed others?

Made an naughty hand gesture to another?

Had a negative emotional outburst?

A few years ago, a team member in one of my classes shared a saying that she'd found helpful: Respond, Don’t React.   Over the years that little bit of advice has served me well.  It's the perfect reminder of the need for emotional intelligence.


What does Respond Don’t React mean?  It refers to the fact that we have choices about our behavior.  In any given situation, no matter what our senses tell us, we have choices.  We don’t always recognise it, but we have choices.  You could diagram the situation like this.






Starting on the left, we receive some form of stimulus which is generally people or events.  For each stimulus, we can either choose a response, or we can simply react.  There is a big difference between responding and reacting.


In Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More than IQ, Daniel Goleman talks about how we are hardwired to react to emotional situations without thinking.  Our primitive brain system, made up of the limbic system and amygdala, literally springs into action without engaging our neocortex or thinking brain.  That is, when we are emotionally charged, we react without thinking.


That wouldn’t be such a big problem if our reactions were emotionally intelligent choices.  Unfortunately, our hardwiring is, well, primitive.  It is often the very opposite of exercising our emotional intelligence.


Let’s consider an example that happens to me on a regular basis.  I live in Kuwait and commute to work so I am often dealing with traffic issues and other drivers.   It is pretty common to have another driver cut me off or act in a rude way.  Consider how I act differently toward this same event depending on whether I am having a good day or bad day:


On a Good Day - If someone cuts me off in traffic, I might choose to simply wish them well or say a prayer for their safety.  After all, there are days when I am in a hurry and so I am able to feel empathetic toward others.


On a Bad Day - I am unlikely to choose that positive response.  I am much more likely give the other driver a one-finger salute or tell them where I think they should go.  If I pray, it is for their speedy demise!


Notice that under the exact same stimulus, I am likely to have two very different outcomes.  One is a positive response which I have selected from a myriad of potential responses.  The other is a reaction that may or may not involve any thought.


Reactions are generally negative and can be considered a type of emotional loss of control, or breakdown


Why Do We Care about Emotional Breakdowns?


In case you think that a loss of control is OK and not something to be concerned with, here are some things to consider about those breakdowns.


Where in previous times companies were willing to overlook abrasiveness or lack of control for their best performers, that is no longer the case.  Companies are growing intolerant of poor behavior.  A couple of offensives could result in your termination.


Increasing Discretionary Cuts – In our current competitive business environment, companies are running lean and mean.  The difference between being cut and between being kept can boil down to how much of a liability you might be to your boss, or how much they like you.


Questionable Trustworthiness and Leadership – Trustworthiness is based on consistency and congruence in talk and actions.  If your behavior is inconsistent because of a lack of self-control, then your leadership will be called into question.


Lack of Personal Effectiveness – I firmly believe that if you cannot manage yourself, you won’t be effective at managing others.  Our personal effectiveness is going to be a function of our choices and our emotional intelligence.


Let’s look at little more closely at the root causes of breakdowns and then in the Action Plan section I will suggest some things that you might do to reduce or eliminate the risk of an emotional reaction or breakdown.


Anatomy of a Breakdown


What is the difference between those situations where we exercise good self-control and respond wisely and those situations where we have a negative emotional reaction?  More to the point, under what conditions am I likely to respond with kindness versus those situations where I will I react with negativity and self-righteousness?


If we take a closer look at the steps involved in an emotional breakdown, we will see that our ability to respond wisely is based on our choices we make throughout the process.  It is not just when we encounter a stimulus, but all of our choices.  Let’s look at each part of the process to see the potential choices we could make.


Choices about Stimulus


As noted above, stimulus is generally people or events.  We might think that we have no control over people and events but this is not the case.  The decisions we make about our lives, our profession, and the companies we work for determine the types of people and events we will encounter.


  1. Choices Affecting Our Emotional Resilience


Emotional resilience is a term for our ability to weather emotional storms and exercise emotional self-control.  Some people tend to roll with the punches while others have a hair trigger.  Our level of emotional resilience is also a result of choices; in particular our choices around self-care.


Here is a partial list of the factors that affect our emotional resilience:


How much sleep we get at night is the single biggest factor for determining our emotional resilience.

Choosing to invest in personal growth work to understand ourselves and what pushes our buttons.

Our use of stimulants like caffeine

Whether or not we go to work when we are sick or fatigued.

Whether we maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine.

How much we are “always on” with our phones and WIFI connectivity.

Whether we maintain a healthy work-life balance including time off and vacations.

Whether we are living a life that includes things we are passionate about.

Just as important as understanding the things that affect our emotional resilience is understanding our own unique indicators that we are heading toward a breakdown.  For me, this is when I become critical of others or start blaming others.  This is a “tell” that my emotional resilience is weakened.


  1. Choices About Our Responses (or Reactions)


In the area of our responses and reactions, we should recognize that we have a myriad of choices as well.  There are an infinite number of ways to respond to any given stimulus.  However, we need to be well versed and prepared for those responses in order to have choices when the opportunities arise.


You may take this one step further by rehearsing or role-playing your desired response long before the situation presents itself.  I have done this on numerous occasions with friends and even with my wife.  It works, trust me.


Some of my favorite responses are based on humor that diffuses tension (not sarcasm or picking on others).  In some cases, the smartest response may be to remain silent and wait for the other person to speak.  If you are not sure of the best way to respond, you can ask for help.  You can also learn a lot from those who are good at it.  Here are some great responses I have heard others use:


When someone is treating them very poorly:


That hurts!  Why would you say something like that?


I refuse to be treated this way.


I am not going to continue this conversation with you until you can speak to me in a reasonable tone.


I am deeply offended by your implication that I…


This conversation is over.


Where is that comment coming from?


When someone is complaining or criticizing:


I am sorry that you feel that way.  Please let me know if there is something that I can do to help.


What would it take to make this right for you?


Is there something you need from me right now?


 Your Action Plan


Whether or not you have had problems in this area in the past, I recommend that you do a quick self-evaluation and prepare your own action plan.  You can use the following questions to spark your own thinking:


Evaluate your own performance in this area.  Are you likely to have an emotional breakdown of some type at work?  Do you treat the threat of a breakdown as importantly as you do other risks?


Consider your choices you have made that put you in the path of certain people and events.  What are the choices you have made about your life and your job?  Are you setting yourself up for a higher than necessary level of stimulation and stress?


How well do you treat yourself?  Do you get enough sleep?  Are you eating right and exercising?   Do you recognise the signs that you are getting run down?  A friend of mine uses the HALT acronym; he is at risk if he is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.


Do you think about your responses to events or are you simply reacting?  Have you rehearsed some of the best practices examples and have them at the ready?  Have you role played those responses with a co-worker, manager, or family member?


Next time you get stimulated, PAUSE and think...

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