4 Steps from Reactivity to Responsiveness

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Back in my college days, I would absolutely geek out when I got my first glimpse of next semester's course catalogue. Reading through it and imagining what I would take felt like touching into boundless possibility; I was positive the coming semester would include some of the best classes yet taught by some of the most brilliant professors yet. A few times, those dreams came to be.

A New Year feels much the same to me: A new sheaf of calendar pages holding 365 opportunities to move closer and closer to the bigger life and badder business of my dreams.

Know the feeling?

Historically, I've done all sorts of iterations of goal setting that I've pretended aren't really dreaded New Year Resolutions. I've picked my word of the year, made my vision board, burned what I'm leaving behind, all that jazz. This year, I decided to keep it simple... in perhaps the most complex way possible. This year, I decided to just focus on being more fully Me.

My coaching friends and colleagues, you know this drill - we all work in this space every day. And so you know that what gets in the way of actualizing our most empowered, responsible, amazing selves is reactivity and all that comes with it: blame, assumptions, and giving away our power.

You also know that the antidote to these things - though it is anything but a silver bullet - is pausing.

The Pause, the space we can create after a stimulus and during which we can consider how we'd like to respond, moves us away from reactivity. Like so many of the most profound tools this life has to offer, pausing is very easy to talk about and very hard to do.

So I offer up my four step process in the hopes that it will be a help not only to you as a person but also to you as a coach as you support your clients as they move though the work of becoming their best selves.

Step 1: Notice the desire to react.

When we're first learning these skills, it's often not about noticing we want to react but rather that we did react. Frequently, with that realization comes with Monday quarterbacking our reactions and wishing we had behaved differently.

The challenge and opportunity here is to notice the reaction with curiosity and a learner's mind without the inhibitive baggage of self-punishment. Instead, we can gather up those lessons and celebrate them as the kind of repetition required to build mindfulness. We can make amends with people involved, if possible; we must make amends with ourselves regardless.

When the time comes that we proactively notice the desire to react, we have the opportunity to step away. If there's another person immediately involved, say whatever will allow that time. For a loved or trusted one, it might be as simple as, "I'm feeling stressed about this and want to step away until I can respond calmly." In a less safe scenario, there's always the sudden need for a bathroom break or an urgent call. (Yes, I just advocated lying and yes, I think for the sake of not reacting in a potentially regrettable way, it's worth a wee untruth like this.)

Step 2: Make time to pause.

Hours would be great; seconds will do. Five minutes of pause is plenty challenging for most of us; I even have a three minute timer on my phone for just this very reason.

Pausing is literal. We have to slow down for a moment in order to examine what's going on inside of ourselves. Otherwise, we just pile on more stimulus which positions us to either rush past the discomfort and let it join the bin of unresolved bits deep within us (and those don't just biodegrade in that compost heap, I'm sorry to say. They photodegrade - they need light to break down) or our discomfort grows as new stimulus becomes gas-soaked rags on that fire.

A few things I do while I pause include:

  •  I sit. Sometimes, this is in the form of meditation complete with focus and my hands just so and a particular meditative technique in the hopper. Sometimes, I literally just sit. Quietly. With my phone silenced, no background noise going, no books open. Just sitting.
  • I tune into my discomfort. Emotional discomfort tends to present in visceral ways. Attending to it with curiosity, breathing into that physical discomfort, often brings up bits of wisdom I didn't know were tucked away within me.
  • I jot a few notes. I just let it flow, trying not to self-judge or -edit. The Morning Pages free-write exercise from The Artists Way is a great approach.

Step 3: Respond. Maybe.

Rumi offered us three gates:

"At the first gate, ask yourself ‘Is is true?’
At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary?’
At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind?'”

Pausing allows us the time to walk our words through the three gates.

Of course, it's also important to remember that no amount of pausing and no amount of consideration at the threshold of each gate will lead to perfection, which leads to the final step:

Step 4: Practice, practice, practice. And love the hell out of yourself along the way.


Sarah B Rawz is a business, career and empowerment coach based in Roanoke. These days, she's organizing the Roanoke cohort of ICF-VA and looking with great excitement into a year in which she will celebrate the 5th anniversary of both her meditation practice and her coaching practice. Learn more about her (and sign up for her weekly blog post) at rawzcoaching.com. 

ICF Virginia Charter Chapter

Email: icfvacoach@gmail.com

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