Cliff Lansley PhD

Cliff Lansley PhD

Much of our time is spent reacting to others and events around us. We are hardwired to deal with the world as an animal (e.g. a Chimp). The challenge is that these reactions might not always be the best course of action, and as a result, what we do can make others unhappy, make us feel bad, and often make the situation worse. Why are we built this way?

The truth is, we often React without thinking because emotions work faster than thoughts – about 4 times faster. Emotions are unbidden, they happen to us… often below consciousness. It’s like an ‘autopilot’, often based on fear, anger, and insecurities, and these reactions are not always the most rational or appropriate way to act. Responding, on the other hand, is about taking the situation in and choosing the best course of action based on values such as reason, compassion, and cooperation – plus the goals that are important to us and those we care about.

Let’s take an example:

  1. React: You are trying to work on your laptop and your child breaks something. You immediately react by getting angry, perhaps yelling, upsetting the child and yourself, worsening your relationship, and not making anything better apart from maybe a selfish temporary stress release from the yelling.
  2. Respond: Your child breaks something. You notice your anger reaction, but this time you pause, take a deep breath and consider the situation. The first response is to see if your child is OK — is she hurt, scared? Then, realise that she didn’t deliberately break it to hurt you, it could have been an accident, she may have been bored and felt neglected, and… its replaceable. In the larger view, it’s not that important. Let it go and adjust to a world without it. Third, take a five-minute break from work and help her clean up, make a game of it, show her that mistakes happen and that it’s not something to dwell on. Fourth, calmly talk about how to avoid mistakes like that in the future, and give her a hug.

This choice presents itself to us all the time, whether it’s our partner or friend nagging us, people outside breaching the social distancing guidelines, people being selfish with their bulk shopping, our co-worker being rude on Whatsapp, or our next-door-neighbour moaning all the time. There will always be external events that bother us, but if we learn to respond and not just react, we can make things better and not worse.

Spend YOUR time on what matters

It is worth exploring what you can control, what you can influence, and what is outside of your control. Then make sure you are investing time and thinking on the first two. Here is a model that may help you to explore a model of the “Circles of Influence/Control” – adapted here for current times. 

How to Learn to Respond

The main thing to learn is mindfulness and the pause.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment; to sensations in our body that give us information about an emerging emotion – hot cheeks before anger, freezing our breathing as we enter fear, and so on. If we can identify what’s happening early enough (within a second) we can quickly appraise what the trigger is to the emotional reaction that is about to take over our body and thinking.

Then pause. We don’t have to act immediately, just because we have an internal reaction. We can pause, not act, breathe in deeply and exhale slowly – once will do. We can watch this urge to act irrationally arise, then let it go away. Sometimes that takes a few seconds, other times it means we should remove ourselves politely from the situation and let ourselves cool down before we respond. See also this article on five tips for Emotion Regulation.


Feel the reaction disperse.

Now consider what the most compassionate, smart response might be. What can we do that will help our relationship, teach, build a better team or partnership, make the situation better, calm everyone down… including ourselves?

At first, you might struggle – emotions are powerful as they are designed to protect you. But in time, you’ll learn to sense the emotions arising and manage this reaction, and you’ll get better at the pause. Don’t worry if you struggle — just resolve to be more mindful when it happens next time. Take note of what happened to trigger your reaction, and pay attention when something like that happens again.

Be mindful, pause, then consider a thoughtful, compassionate response.

Two minute minAd-gym

And finally, just as your body needs exercise, it is useful to exercise your mindfulness. You can do this with a simple two-minute exercise. Try this every time you start a coffee/tea break.

Mindfulness is simply about paying attention to one thing, in the present moment, on purpose, without judgement, as if your life depended on it (paraphrased from Jon Kabat Zinn – check him out). It can be drawing, listening to a song, watching a candle flicker, eating your lunch, breathing, or even sitting on the toilet. ;).

Here is a simple breathing exercise that takes less than two minutes (adapted from Shamatha meditation practices).

  1. Find yourself a reasonably quiet place. All comms turned off (negotiate a deal with others in the house to give you some space for 5 minutes).
  2. Sit upright in a dining-type chair, feet flat on the floor, hands on knees, back and neck straight, muscles relaxed, shoulders down.
  3. Eyes closed, breath in slowly and quite deeply through your nose to the silent count of 1 to 9 in your head.
  4. Exhale through your nose slowly – counting backwards from 9 down to 1.
  5. Focus on the air entering and leaving your nose.
  6. Repeat 6 times.
  7. Relax and open your eyes (and drink your coffee!).

Now you are in a good place, off you go and chat to your loved ones, or call someone who may be struggling more than you are ;).

Take care.

From all at EIA Group. x

March 2020.

About the author

Cliff Lansley PhD

Cliff Lansley PhD

Expert in emotional intelligence, behavioural analysis and high stake deception detection contexts. Cliff holds; PhD in Emotional Intelligence, B Ed (Hons), MIOD, MABPsych, Cert Ed.