Hey guys! It’s Dad.
Ok. For real. Just writing that title made me feel pretty uncomfortable.
I’m grateful that it’s not often that I hear raised-voices in our home. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll always find ourselves in such a peaceful and respectful environment.
We can’t isolate ourselves from the outside world and all of its challenges by hiding out in the comfort of our homes 24/7. We need to live! That means that we need to interact with other people; all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a little life-skill that can help us navigate even the roughest seas that life throws at us. This subtle change in the way we see things will allow us to not just avoid confrontation, but to become the calm within the storm.
Here’s a quick version of a common conversation between my students and I. It happens every term, and often in every class period:
Student: “Mr. B! How come you never raise your voice? You like never yell or anything.”
Me: “Cuz I don’t need to.”
Student: “But if you don’t raise your voice…how do we know that you really actually mean what you’re saying?”
Me: “Because I said it.”
Now let’s go back to the offensive title of this post for a minute. Why did I use such an ugly and abrasive title? I did it so that we learn to recognize the feelings that this type of interaction can create. Just reading it can change our mood, but being the target of this kind of harsh language can really get to us. It can make us crumble and cower, or we can become aggressive and defensive. It can create fear and anxiety, almost as if we’ve been startled (like when you’re rocking back in a chair and it almost falls over.) It can even change the chemistry in our bodies.
There will be times, if there haven’t been already, when you’ll be confronted by someone who appears to have completely lost their marbles. They might yell and become very animated in their actions and gestures. Their physical appearance may be intimidating as they shake a fist or point a threatening finger. Their eyes look angry, and they may curse and scream am you. I wish I could say that this stuff doesn’t happen…but it does…and it will.
So, with the certainty of these interactions and experiences on our horizon, it’s important for us to know how to respond under these circumstances. We need to practice and master exactly how to avoid getting dragged into these types of situations. Beyond that, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could go a step further and learn how to help bring peace and calmness to someone going through an emotionally charged time…or even just bring peace back toourselves? This type of situations will crash, uninvited and unwelcomed, into our lives, s olet’s get ready to make the best of ‘em!
I recently witnessed an upsetting exchange between a man and a woman outside our local grocery store. I think they were married, but it sure wouldn’t take many outbursts like the one I saw today to send most folks running for the hills…or to a divorce lawyer! The screaming, fist-shaking, and shouting first startled me, then concerned me, then it kinda broke my heart. Why? Because I’ve been there.
I’ve handled these types of situations poorly in the past. Not often. In fact, not often at all, but often enough to know that I don’t want to be a part of them anymore. (That’s how we learn…right? Makin’ mistakes.) I know how scary it can be. I know how long the emotions they stir up can last. Although these interactions often last for only an instance, like when someone cuts us off on the highway, they can leave us with unhealthy feelings that can last for hours…or even forever if we let them.
It was only after learning how NOT to handle these situations that I learned how to navigate the rough seas of conflict in a way that, at the very least, eases discomfort, and at best can turn these experiences into something profoundly positive. I swear, sometimes it like magic.
“So how do you avoid shouting back when someone gets in your face? What’s the right reaction to this type of insult or verbal attack?“
Truth? There isn’t a “right reaction!”
That’s the point. Really! A “reaction” is exactly what this type of situation does not need. Steven Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that we need to “create space between stimulus and response.” This means that immediately after we feel attacked or disrespected we need to pause for just split second before we say or do anything.
We need to stop when we first start feeling agitated. Just firmly, consciously push the pause button.
“OK! But that’s easier said than done!“
In the beginning, yes. But, like all healthy behaviors, it becomes more natural (and more rewarding) over time. We can make this a part of our nature; our maturity. We can actually practice not getting angry. We can practice not throwing fuel on the fire; not getting “triggered.” The split-second immediately after we get triggered, we can simply pause, with absolutely no reaction at all. We don’t even have to think…yet. Just pause. Practice it! Practice just stopping.
Once we’ve mastered breaking away from the habit of reacting, then we’ve matured to the next stage. We can go through the exercises of thinking and visualizing. Think of possible responses and their likely outcomes. It’s incredible how quickly our brains work during these moments. When we get really good at it, we can think of and visualize two or three possible responses and their outcomes in a fraction of a second!
Imagine the following circumstance:
Johnny throws a water bottle at you.
What do you do? You pause. You think, “Should I throw it back? No. Should I give him the finger and curse at him? No. How about walking over and throwing the bottle in the recycle bin? Maybe! Tell an adult? Sure. Ask him not to throw things? Sure.” Then, after we’ve thought of an appropriate response…we choose the action that gives US the outcome that WE want. Normally that’s a peaceful and positive one.
That pause; that fraction of a second when we don’t react but instead think, gives us options; good options with optimal outcomes. Any of these options can be our response, and any of these responses will lead to a far better outcome than turning around and chucking the bottle at Johnny like we actually wanted to.
One of the priceless side effects of remaining calm is…Power. People raise their voices when they feel that they’re not being heard. The truth is, however, when we raise our voices we aren’t actually gaining power or attention at all. We’re losing it. We’re losing face. We’re losing respect. We’re losing credibility and trust, and we’re probably losing friends. And, in spite of the fact that we’re desperately trying to capture someone’s attention, we’re loudly and aggressively demanding their attention…sadly, all we’ve captured is their fear.
Now that we’ve raised our voice, our audience is no longer listening to what we’re saying. They’re either preparing to defend themselves or they’re shutting down completely. They will either meet us at our level of aggression (or even surpass it)…or they’ll step back quietly feeling ashamed, fearful, embarrassed, or resentful. After that, all communication stops. The words may not stop, but they no longer carry any weight or meaning.
Think about it. After someone hears you yell “shut up,” they shut down, and shutting down i’s a pretty hard hit for a relationship to absorb. Whether it’s an argument with your brother, your girlfriend, your parents, your friends, or your boss…it’s tough to overcome the pain of an angry outburst. Yes, the wounds created by these harsh interactions heal, but they’ll always leave a scar. It’s best to patiently navigate through and around those emotion rather give in to them.
Oh yeah. There’s something else that I’ve noticed over the years that seems to come from our ability to handle stressful situations with poise, respect, and humility. I don’t know exactly what to call it, but it’s often accompanied by of happiness, trust, and lots and lots of friends.
As you work on mastering the ability to create space between stimulus and response you’ll notice what I see as a self-evident truth playing out. You’ll start to see the benefits of responding intelligently as opposed to reacting. You’ll start to see that when you respond peacefully, patiently, and with compassion, you’ll no longer go out of your way to avoid what you previously thought might be an uncomfortable conversation. You’ll be able to talk more openly with people because you know that you won’t be drawn into a situation that’s now…beneath you and behind you.
This skill helps in sport, in class, at work, with family…with everyone. Give it a try. If you fail, try again and again. Just like hitting a curveball…I promise it gets easier with practice.
I love you guys.