So there you are talking to a colleague about a little glitch that happened on a project yesterday. You’re feeling calm and non-blaming. You may be waxing philosophical about the fact that something went wrong. You may even crack a joke or two about Murphy’s Law. And then your colleague says, “Well hopefully you learned something from that experience and it won’t happen again.” And suddenly you hear a weird ringing in your ears or you see red or you feel a burning sensation in your chest, and you blurt out, “Who the hell do you think you are? That wasn’t my fault!”
Been there, done that? Or at least something similiar?
Welcome to the world of emotional reactivity.
Loosely defined, emotional reactivity is what occurs when someone says something that pushes your buttons, triggers a feeling, or “stands on your last nerve” and you get angry (think defensive). If you’re not aware of what’s happening, you can end up saying/doing something you regret. Conversely, you might withdraw. Both reactions (lashing out or playing turtle) pretty much undermine effective communication. And both reactions can come back to haunt you — because no matter how right you were to be insulted, lashing out will make you look like a hothead and inhibit collaboration. And withdrawing can make you look sulky — or just plain weird.
Of course, we all have reactions to other people — whether it’s within families, workplaces, neighborhoods, cities, even on the freeway. The trick is deciding how we will behave when we feel those reactions.
Up Next: Ways to keep your cool when you’re about to lose it.