As I wrote last week, it’s important to be able to identify your own reactive patterns, because if you’re constantly flying off the handle (or, conversely, playing turtle by withdrawing or shutting down), it can really do a number on your business relationships, family relationships, even your reputation in your community.
But once you figure out what triggers your own hotheadedness (or cold shoulderedness, as the case might be), it’s time to take constructive action. In other words, you can’t stop at identifying what causes you to over-react, because you’ll never be able to stop people from doing things that trigger you. But you can learn to respond in a skillful manner — a manner that is, that will keep you from making the situation worse and may even make the situation better.
There are some age-old tips on dealing with strong feelings, of course, including counting to ten, leaving the room, and using “I statements” (e.g., “I”m not comfortable with your tone of voice right now — as opposed to “how dare you talk to me like that?”) But here are some other techniques for responding skillfully even when you feel your own emotions kicking in:
1. Give yourself the gift of time
When you feel yourself reacting, decide you’re not going to say anything. Or simply say, “You know, I’d like to take a little while to think about what you’re saying.” Or “let me get back to you.” This allows you to get out of the situation without escalating it.
2. Ground yourself
If you can’t physically leave the situation, physically ground yourself. Pay attention to your breathing or the sensations in your feet. Clasp your hands in front of you — it’s a gesture that expresses calmness and also can be self soothing. Lean back in your chair and try to soften the area around your eyes. All of these can help you cut through the spiral of tension that causes you to react.
3. Listen to the other person
Even as you’re focusing on your own feelings and physical presence, try to observe the other person calmly. Is she angry? Sad? Is her response functional? Dysfunctional? Constructive? Deconstructive? Do you agree with her criticism or can you detach from it and understand that her words have more to do with her own inner state than who you are?
Up next: More ways to slow down the reaction.