“Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” Viktor Frankl wrote in 1946. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
It’s a liberating thought.
While it’s not easy at the best of times to give ourselves the space that Frankl refers to - when we feel under pressure, stressed or upset it’s even less likely. Yet, this is the very time to exercise our choice.
The advice drummed into us since playground days, when you're angry count to ten, or else, don't let the bully see they've upset you, are more than childish mantras. There's plenty of mileage in them for our adult selves when we seek more deliberate responses.
It's not always easy, but then neither is the aftermath of allowing our emotions to run amok. Most of the time we know who the usual suspects are, or else those situations likely to trigger our knee jerk responses, so why do we get stuck in responding in the ways we always have?
The truth is, we're tuned to automatic most of the time, primed to follow the neural pathways we’ve learned or inherited - frames that may sometimes sabotage us.
On the other hand, when we take a break to reflect on our patterns, the traits others see in us, or the hard wiring of our personality type, we can better understand the predictability of our responses and maybe reclaim some of our power to choose.
When we feel under threat, seeing things from the other person’s point of view is hardly our first reaction, but when our lives aren't in any immediate danger, it's a great idea. In fact, questioning our first readings of stressful situations almost always provides us with better options.
Step One: Know your Patterns
So, the first step is to find the space to reflect upon your usual responses and how things usually play out.
If someone criticises you, are you likely to lash out or sit on your frustrations? If you're asked to stay late when you have something important already planned will you say yes or no? Could you instead buy yourself some time?
If you’re unsure what your style is, and you don’t have time to explore the theories about personality types, it’s always illuminating to ask those who know you well to describe how they experience your patterns of behaviour.
While it may be interesting to dig deeper, to uncover the beliefs, feelings and thoughts that translate into the attitudes and habits that govern what you say and do, it’s also enough just to stay present, mindful even, of how your old storylines play out.
Step Two: Know what you Want
So, noticing is the first step and involves reflection and mindfulness, but clearly there’s much more to it.
Step two involves finding the space to think about your aspirations, hopes and dreams. Why? Because if you haven’t considered your goals in any given situation, reacting and responding to whatever comes your way is the choice you’ve unconsciously made.
Swept along by circumstance or else by whim, things happen, you respond. Without knowing, identifying what you ideally want to happen, there’s no way to measure the results of your actions. There's also a less obvious incentive for assertive rationality and thu a greater likelihood of purely reactive and unhelpful responses.
While some people seem destined for greatness, born with an instinctive drive that focuses their ambitions, the rest of us mere mortals don't even get to play the best part in our own narrative. Instead, our story may depend on a series of reactions to the agendas of others.
Ideally, we need to know what our agenda is. At best, where it is that we want to be. Or, if that feels too huge a task, where it is we don’t want to end up. So. If you don't know already, when are you going to find time to think about what you really want?
Step Three: Make the Choice
This step is obviously easier for some, that is, to decide to exercise your power to plot your own course. To choose to be proactive where you can be.
While there may well be political, economic and social reasons that make exercising freedom of choice very difficult, things aren't always as impossible as they seem. Especially if it's your mindset that is the problem.
Someone wise once said that we work towards change when the reasons for doing so outweigh the reasons for not - which takes us neatly back to step two and how important shifting the status-quo may be for you.
Where there’s a history of procrastination, for example, it could be a result of fear of failure or of the unknown. But again, taking time to examine the worst that could happen may help you to find a more rational way forward.
Back to the subject of this piece - are you conscious of your patterns of behaviour?
Maybe your story is that you’ve never had to be proactive as things seemed to have naturally mapped out well for you thus far - or maybe you're just not aware of your natural ability to point yourself in the right direction.
It's also worth reflecting on whether being rudderless is synonymous with being powerless. In the longer term, entrusting your potential to wise guardians. empathetic managers, generous benefactors or indeed circumstance may not be such a great idea.
For those of us who have lost out on opportunities that seemed rightfully theirs or suffered miserable times at work, we know that life does not always play out like a Disney film. Similarly, time is too precious to pray for a lottery win or for the planets to align.
Stephen Covey echoes these thoughts in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Instead of waiting for your own personal genie to appear, he urges proactivity;
“...you don’t have to wait for circumstances or other people to create perspective expanding experiences. You can consciously create your own.”
Step Four: Reclaim Your Power
There are huge incentives at stake and tons of research papers out there to support the idea that finding time to think is extremely useful!
Clearly, we don’t really need to be told that this is the case. Yet many of us continue to fill our days with so much activity that stillness becomes increasingly elusive.
We need to fight for the spaces in between. Finding the space to think about bigger pictures has been proven to help people to discover their creativity and happiness.
On a micro scale, several studies suggest that finding time to reflect on your personal triggers and responses will help you to flex your emotional intelligence, reduce your stress levels, feel less anxious and be more productive.
Rather than being a personality trait, mindfulness is a state with benefits. It’s also not difficult. It starts with making the decision to try to stay present. To keep spotting the patterns, the curved balls, the diversions and distractions that inform your responses.
Although we can’t help our physiological response to being tapped just below our kneecap, when we are mindful of our cognitive and emotional patterns our behavioural responses can become choices rather than feeling like natural and automatic reflexes.
In practical terms, the space between stimulus and response could be seconds to sip a glass of water, taking five minutes to mull things over or getting some fresh air, sleeping on things to decide on the best course of action, attending a weekend retreat or taking a sabbatical – whichever possible choices, there are endless opportunities to flip any default switch you have from reactive to proactive. You could also be optimising your chances of fulfillment.
To end on a more urgent note, none of us can afford to leave this idea until tomorrow. Aside from the fact that life and promotion may be passing you by, if you don’t seize the moment, there could be trouble in store.
Cheerily, there’s little doubt that our artificially intelligent successors will be programmed to function at their most optimum levels. To an overactive imagination, this will surely include their ability to get rid of us less effective creatures if we’re not careful. So, before that happens, why wouldn’t you want to be more powerful and free to discover your potential?