Changing Your Reactions
Something I hear about from my coaching clients is that they are unhappy with the way they react to others. And while their first impulse is that they wish the others would change (so they wouldn’t have to!) it doesn’t take them long to come to the idea that they can change their own reactions and thus mitigate the difficulty of dealing with the other people in their lives.
Today’s post is all about changing the way you react to others. And like in so many things in life, it’s useful to begin with the end in mind. What do you want from yourself? How do you want to be when dealing with people just as they are? Do you want to be calm? Confident? Assertive? Relaxed? Caring? Patient? Determined? A combination of these? Whatever internal state you desire for yourself, we’re going to call that a ‘resource state,’ in that it represents you being resourceful. Give it a name, because once you’ve named it, you can develop it.
Now, try to find a time or place in your life where having some or all of that resource state comes naturally to you. Let’s say you’d like to be cool, calm and collected. Maybe you know how to be calm staring at goldfish! Good news, that means you know how to be calm.
But what if you can’t think of any place in your life where you are resourceful in the way you desire. No problem! Think of someone who is! Find a model, someone to show you how to do it. And lest you think that’s too big a challenge, more good news. You were born with the skill of modeling. Remember all those things that your parents said or did that you vowed you would never say or do? Don’t you do some of those things anyway? What happened? You modeled their internal states and the related behaviors.
If you know someone who deals well with whatever is difficult for you to deal with, seek them out and ask how they do it! What do they think, how do they view the person or situation, what kinds of things do they say to themselves that allows them to be resourceful in the way you desire for yourself. Do a sensory systems check, starting with what they see or imagine, then what they hear and/or say to themselves, then what they feel (emotion? sensation?) and where they feel it in their body. Keep asking questions until it makes enough sense to you that you can mentally rehearse what you’ve found out. Walk through the situation with your difficult person using this new internal state until you’ve made it your own.
But what if you don’t know anyone who knows how to access that resource state that you say you want for yourself? It doesn’t matter if the model you choose is someone you know, or someone you don’t know, whether a movie star or a political figure, or a character from a book or movie. All that matters is that you think they’ve got the what you want. Because then, you can use them as a resource to get more information on that resource state.
Once you know how it works, you can make it a habit by practicing it in the past and future. Specifically, replay the past in a new way, and practice for the future in the new way. Intensity and repetition are how we develop our habits. So the more realistically you imaging being able to respond in a resourceful way, and the more times you repeat it, even though at this stage it’s nought but an internal fantasy, the strong the association gets. Then the next time you are in a situation where the resource state is needed, you’ll be trained and ready, your nervous system will recognize what’s going on, and just like that, you will have changed your reaction.
A client of mine, Maryanne, was having problems dealing with her overly aggressive boss. She frequently felt that he was being unfair to her, but she couldn’t find it within herself to take any action. So day after day, she listened to his tirades, swallowed her pride, and sometimes cried. As her frustration increased, Maryannel’s health deteriorated. She told me she needed to “be more direct with her boss.”
I asked Maryanne what she needed to do that. She said she needed to be more confident and willing to assert herself. She started to tell me that it made her nervous just to think about that, and I stopped her. “That’s not going to help! You already know how to do that! Today, we’re interested in change, right?” She liked that I was so assertive with her. I asked if there was anywhere in her life where she was confident and assertive. She couldn’t think of a one. So I asked if she knew of anyone who could handle her boss in the way she desired. She said, “Well, you probably could, but it’s different, because you’re a man.” Hmm, new information. (Not about me being a man, but about her making that distinction!)
So I said, “Sounds like you need a role model who is a confident and assertive woman. And you can’t think of a one in real life. So how about fictional characters? From books or movies? Can you think of someone who you think of this way? Who could do what you wish to be able to do?” And she snapped her fingers and said, “Sure! Captain Katherine Janeway from Star Trek Voyager! She wouldn’t take any guff from my boss! She’s dealt with rebellious officers, and hostile alien races, even an all powerful being!”
I get it. I watched Voyager. But I didn’t need to get it. I didn’t need to know who Janeway was. She could have said Lois Lane for all I care. (And I bet that would have worked too!) The important thing about resource states is that if it’s what you want, YOU have to get it. So I asked Maryanne to imagine Captain Janeway in her position at the company, sitting at her desk at the office, everything else the same, and to imagine how the boss walks in. I told her to watch closely and tell me if Janeway was the right role model. And not surprisingly, Janeway had the right stuff. Maryanne watched, listened, and learned, as she saw Janeway rise up and stroll out from behind her desk like she was in command on the bridge of her ship. When she spoke to Maryanne’s boss, Janeway was cool, calm, and confident. She spoke with authority. She looked at her boss as no more than an equal, but with a different responsibility than her own. She listened to what Janeway said and how she said it. And when she was satisfied, I said, great! Your turn. Be the Captain!” and then walked her through the same scene as if she were the Captain, seeing what the Captain would see, feeling what the Captain would feel. She deepened her association by repeatedly imagining herself as Katherine Janeway dealing with her boss.
The next week she reported what she termed, “a 20 percent improvement.” She said she was a little more assertive with her boss but what really shocked her was that at a restaurant where her meal was not done right, she sent it back. She said she had never done that before in her whole life and then suddenly without even thinking she had just done it.
Maryanne made a habit of replaying annoying past events. Anytime she was dissatisfied with an interaction with her boss she would go back and imagine doing it with the attitude she would have liked to have. Each time, she tweaked it a bit, until she got it just right. And the results came fast. One month later she was delighted to report that her boss had begun to throw one of his tantrums and with only a moment’s hesitation, Maryanne told him that she wanted to be treated with respect, that she knew he was capable of it, and expected it in the future. Then she turned around and walked out. Wow. I could only imagine her boss’s surprise!
She told me that what helped her the most from this little stretch of the imagination was the self-esteem Katherine Janeway seemed to have. She had the self-respect to elegantly stand up to Maryanne’s boss! Maryanne said that after watching this mental movie, her boss looked smaller, somehow, less imposing. Even though he was the boss, she saw him more as an ensign, needing her help to develop into an officer. That shift in perception helped her see his ranting and raving in a new light, and deal with it accordingly. She realized for the first time how insecure he must have to feel in order to treat her like that. She realized that his behavior had next to nothing to do with her, personally. And she realized that as someone with a resource state, she was in command of her self and her reactions.
Your comments, and reactions, are always welcome!
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.