Happy Holidays!

The holidays are here!  We hope to spend time with family and friends.  A friend sent me a wonderful gift of these reflections (below).  I thought they were so applicable to the sometimes challenging work or family parties.

As we grow up, we develop patterns in our thinking, emotions, and responses, and these come up more easily in situations that are more difficult to control, like a conflict. Pausing allows us to recognize the pattern and to investigate why. Practicing pausing in easy situations makes it easier for us to pause in difficult situations.

We need to face what we perceive as negative emotions and patterns because this is where the real progress is made. When we avoid what is difficult, it just comes back again as even more difficult.

Wishing you all a peaceful holiday season!

 

Why did I just react that way?

 

I made plans for New Year’s Eve and recently learned the event is for 21 and over. My son, an adult, but not yet 21, cannot join us. This simple fact elicited in me a strong, negative, emotional reaction. I didn’t understand my feelings, at least at first. After all, my son is an adult and certainly didn’t need a babysitter. Upon reflection, I realized, my reaction came from my childhood when my parents regularly went out on holidays, leaving us alone. This is a reactive emotion, and as predicted, the reaction itself – my frustration – caused a conflict.

In the moments between stimulus and response, the brain searches for a pattern, something to help you understand if there is danger or not; and if so, can it offer a solution. More than likely your brain connects to a reactive emotion – the feelings programed from experiences as a child, or any repeated experiences. Pema Chodron, in her book No Time to Lose, explains – “Emotional reactivity starts as a tightening. There’s the familiar tug and before we know it, we’re pulled along. In just a few seconds, we go from being slightly miffed to completely out of control.” I wasn’t out of control, but I was certainly more that “miffed.”

Author and teacher Ken McLeod describes the reaction, “You feel like you’ve been hit by a wave that came out of nowhere. Even though the emotional associations are not connected with the present situation, they often push you back into the reaction.” (McLeod, Ken. Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention).

In the last blog, we looked at two different scenarios which had the potential to end in conflict. Let’s apply the understanding of reactive emotions to the first situation:

You’re sitting in a quiet room, studying. Someone walks in, the door behind them slams shut, the tables and windows shake; an echo reverberates around the room. You jump, whipping around to face the person who just entered and yell “What is wrong with you? Can’t you see I’m studying?!”

Let’s break down this reaction into steps:

  1. You jump
  2. You experience an unpleasant feeling.
  3. You associate that feeling with anger
  4. You yell at the person who just walked into the room, “What the wrong with you! Can’t you see I’m studying?”

Step 1 is your body’s physical reaction.

Step 2 is the first emotion you experience as a result – pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, in this case, unpleasant. The noise startled you.

Step 3 is where reactive emotion begins. Here, you have the opportunity to pause, recognize the feeling and identified emotion. Why does the sound of a slamming door make you angry? Perhaps it reminds you of a roommate you didn’t get along with very well. She always came home in the wee hours of the morning, slamming the door on the way in. Perhaps you were punished by your parents when you slammed the door each time you came into the house. Maybe like my situation, you don’t know why you feel angry at that moment, you just do. The important point is that you pause, observing your reaction. Now is the opportunity to make a choice. Do you still want to yell at this person, or do you want to respond differently, perhaps asking “Is everything alright? That door sure shut pretty hard.” Your response controls the direction of the conversation.

Can our understanding of reactive emotions influence the second situation?

You are on a phone conference.   The manager says, “Our top customer called today complaining. I’d like to understand what happened.” You begin to answer, “A mistake was made, someone misunderstood….” You are cutoff mid-sentence…..

The manager has a choice. If he blurts out a quick retort, based on emotional reaction – “So who made the mistake? We should fire them!” The likely response will be that the employees stop talking. The conflict makes everyone uncomfortable. It is unlikely the manager will ever learn the truth of what happened.

Alternatively, the manager says “This is an open conversation. Please tell me more about how the mistake happened and if there are things we can do in the future to prevent this.” Not only is the conflict avoided, but the group is now open to looking at better opportunities and new ways of working.

Each approach has lasting effects. When the manager reacts in an angry, accusing manner, employees don’t just stop talking for this one instance. The conflict has the potential to establish a pattern of not surfacing issues. Conversely, when the manager creates an atmosphere of open communication, employees will feel encouraged to bring up other issues.

In this blog, we’ve looked at a few situations where using tools for conflict prevention is the right approach.   But sometimes surfacing the conflict is exactly the right thing to do. Next time we’ll talk when it is appropriate to bring a conflict to light and how to constructively manage the conversations.

 

The Pause

You’re sitting in a quiet room, studying. Someone walks in, the door behind them slams shut, the tables and windows shake; an echo reverberates around the room. You jump, whipping around to face the person who just entered….

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

You are on a phone conference.   The manager says, “Our top customer called today complaining. I’d like to understand what happened.” You begin to answer, “A mistake was made, someone misunderstood….” You are cutoff mid-sentence…..

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Each of these scenarios can end in mutual understanding or conflict. Do we have the power to choose the outcome, and if so – how? We’ll come back to these scenarios later.

Mindfulness is a practice

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware, in each moment, what is going on around you – thoughts, emotions, even physical feelings. So often we are on autopilot in our days. You leave for work and arrive, 30 minutes later. Sometimes, if you stop and think about it, you aren’t quite sure how you got there. This happens to all of us. Our body knows how to operate the car, our brain knows the route. As we drive, we think about what needs to get done that day, about a conversation we had the night before. You arrive safely, but what have you missed?

Mindfulness helps rewire the brain to slow down and pay attention. It doesn’t mean you get to work any later. It does mean that you noticed the wildflowers exploding in colors by the side of the highway. You noticed the woman in the car to the left of you. She had an anxious look on her face and seemed distracted herself. The front tires of her car were angling to the right, towards your lane. It would probably be best to slow down or change lanes as she might want to get over and could cut you off.

Meditation is often suggested as the best way to grow your mindfulness skill. It is as simple as sitting quietly for 10 minutes at a time. When I first heard about meditation, I thought my brain would magically quiet down. All the noise would stop and I’d be left with a blissful state of peace. That didn’t happen. Instead, I sat there with the neurons in my brain all squabbling at once. “Does my left leg hurt?” “What should I make for dinner?” “My nose itches.” Thought after thought, sensation after sensation! I wanted to jump up and do something just so I didn’t have to hear all this noise in my head!

Instead, I sat, watching each thought and pausing to make a decision about it. Did my left leg hurt? Should I move it? Can I live with it the way it is? What to make for dinner? Thank you brain for keeping me prepared; I think this can wait ‘til later. Hey that itch on my nose just went away by itself!

As I became more comfortable with the fly by thoughts, the emotions started to creep in. Why do I suddenly feel so angry? I have no idea but I’m getting the hang of this. Like the itch on my nose, how about I just see what happens with that emotion in a few minutes? Anger, I’ll come back to you.

Ten minutes like this can seem like eternity. But, fairly quickly, the brain adapts and you settle in for the ride. Sometimes, you might get a moment of that fleeting quiet bliss. But then inevitably, you’ll notice that too and the squabbling neurons start up once again!

Ten minutes can seem like a really long time to just sit, doing nothing. But you don’t need an “official” meditation practice to train your brain to be more present. Let’s take a moment right now. Pause here and notice the background color of your screen, the color behind this text. What is the color? Is there a bit of a glare, making the screen shine? Or is your background flat? Perhaps you are outside, looking at this from your smartphone. Is it difficult to read the text?   Take a look at the words on this page. Do you see patterns of long words and short words? How do you feel right now?

Let’s go back to our conflicts we started with at this beginning of this blog.

You’re sitting in a quiet room, studying. Someone walks in, the door behind them slams shut, the tables and windows shake; an echo reverberates around the room. You jump, whipping around to face the person who just entered….

Before you engage with the person coming into the room, take a second to evaluate – how do you feel? Is your heart racing? Are you angry, surprised? Take another moment to notice – do you recognize this person? How do you feel about them?

Once you take stock, and are aware of your reactions and emotions, choose your response.

In my next post I’ll talk about reactive emotions. Mindful of the present moment and our reactive emotions, we’ll come back to our two scenarios to see what happens next.

Want to learn more about mindfulness? These are the books that got me started:

Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life by Priscilla Warner. Not a big fan of the self-help genre? This book is for you. Priscilla writes about a very personal quest to end her years of panic attacks and develop a mind like a Buddhist monk. Her quest includes investigations into the science of the brain, and the benefits she finds from meditation, all with large doses of humor and humility.

The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life by Elisha Goldstein. Not interested in a formal meditation practice? Elisha take the reader through simple 1 to 10 minute exercises to help prime the brain to be more aware. He also has a number of short guided practices on YouTube.

So it begins

My first class at Fielding University, an online school in the days where there were no online schools (think 2002 – the internet stone age). The professor established the rules for this class – we could only communicate through the school’s bulletin board system online. No phone calls, no meeting in person, no communication outside the school’s system. We worked in groups setup by the instructor. As either luck, or careful planning by the teacher, would have it, one student in our group disagreed with everything. We slowly, via online posts, came to consensus for the direction of our paper, all except one. Post after post we would disagree, argue, and present facts.
Our spoken languages have so many words to describe similar ideas, but the differences in understanding can be profound. Calling someone an amateur, instead of a novice can create an emotional reaction in the listener. Without intent, reaction and conflict ensued. Soon we were in arguments never knowing how we got there. After a long and painful semester, the class ended. I hoped I’d never have this difficult student in any of my other classes. I never saw him again online leaving me more convinced than ever that he was a setup by my teacher.
The lesson however was learned. My awareness of word choices and tone, especially online, had grown. I was finding the tools I needed to wade into those inevitable conflicts in life.

How to Harness Conflict for Good

Can conflict ever really be constructive? Like me, I‘m sure you’ve found yourself in the midst of an argument, unclear as to how you got there and no idea how to get out. I needed to find the answer; the best solutions and methods to extract real benefits from these frequent battles of will and opinion. I’ve spent years analyzing conflict in many forms. I’ve learned not just how to help resolve or mediate disagreements, but how to identify potential conflicts in advance and change the approach to drive better and more meaningful conversations – how to harness conflict for good.  The purpose of this blog is to share what I’ve learned both through formal education and my experiences.

As an example of my qualifications, I spent my childhood as part of a family that constantly argued. Relentless, nightly discussions over politics, personal disagreements, money – to me, it was without exception loud, disruptive and something to be avoided. As I grew older, I developed conflict avoidant techniques: neutral responses, mere head nods, no response at all, changing the subject or walking away if needed – a tactic which, at times, allowed a meal to be shared in relative peace. Yet, time and again as I matured, conflict would be sitting right next to me – literally. My first job out of college, I was given 1 of 4 desks in a room. There were no cubical walls. Four people, together, all day. The coworker on my left voiced her very strong opinions on a daily basis. The woman in front of me had similarly strong opinions, usually expressed as blunt, non-negotiable opposition. Lunch breaks were an opportunity to fortify myself for the next verbal skirmish.

I don’t think I’m unusual. Many, if not most people, view conflict in a negative light. We try to avoid conflict at all costs, or at least try to prevent the conflict from escalating. Critical responses to social media posts, feedback given by management at work, pointed “suggestions” from family members. We all react differently to these triggers. Some, like the younger me, flee the situation, either physically or mentally. Some of us do our best to end conversations that escalate into controversy as quickly as possible. Others wade in, responding with swift barbs or long diatribes stating opposing positions. Attempts at negotiating “peace” and productive listening of disparate views are seldom attempted, resulting in the unproductive continuation of the polarized discussion the next time the same participants gather at work, or at home. A continuing, unresolved conflict is truly a wound that does not heal.

In future articles, I’ll talk about how to recognize the beginnings of a conflict and give you the tools to make choices. Together, we’ll explore what makes conflicts and communications more constructive.

Next time – What is mindfulness and how can it help stop your stomach from churning.