As we go through life, we are faced with a variety of potential triggers every day. What do we do when faced with those triggers? We react – often unconsciously. Reactivity – that is, these impulsive, unconscious reactions – may be the result of stress or exhaustion, or it could be due to deeper psychological triggers (which all of us humans have).
Psychological triggers can differ based on a number of factors including our childhood experiences, our later life experiences, and other circumstances.
Why is it important to manage reactivity?
Reactivity is when we respond to a situation unconsciously, on autopilot, or by default – that is, we react and respond before we even realize we’re doing it. When you react unconsciously, you can end up responding based on your original trigger – rather than based on the actual situation that is in front of you. This can create confusion, hurt feelings, unnecessary conflict, misunderstanding, and can impact those around you. (There’s a great article from Psychology Today on this.)
In the workplace – where we can face a number of stressors and triggers – reactivity can often occur between colleagues. Again, when you respond unconsciously – based on triggers rather than what is actually happening – it can cause reputational damage if it happens often.
And a special note to senior leaders: the higher up you are, and if you are in a position of power, the less likely people might be to push back or provide you with feedback when you’re being reactive. This means that you may be having an unintended impact on your team and colleagues, and not even realize it. So, it’s especially important, as a leader, to understand your triggers and learn to manage your reactivity.
We’re wired to connect.
Repeatedly relating to people from a place of reactivity can get in the way of truly relating and connecting with other people – which will have an impact on you at a biological level, and impact and limit the quality of your relationships.
Social connection can help boost your mood and manage emotions, and this connectivity can happen anywhere. From the workplace to our home life, and even virtually through social media or online social gatherings.
Imagine how much more potent and fulfilling your connections are when you do successfully manage your reactions to external triggers. Instead of responding to others through an unconscious reaction, you can respond consciously and authentically, which deepens connection and can strengthen the relationship.
How to effectively manage reactivity.
Practice pausing when you feel and observe yourself becoming emotionally hooked. Taking a pause will shift you immediately from unconscious to conscious – and when you can shift into consciousness, you can intentionally choose your next steps.
Depending on the situation or the trigger, the pause you need may be a few seconds long, a few minutes or hours. You may even need to take space away from the situation for a more extended period to shift into a clearer, grounded headspace.
When we successfully pause, we’re overcoming that initial reaction that comes from the Amygdala of our brains; this area is what brings forward the fight-flight-freeze for every person.
Pausing will take practice, especially as once we have an automatic reaction that reaction has momentum thanks to our brain processes. Be patient with yourself, and keep at it!
Take notice of what is going on for you: name the emotion you’re feeling. Identify assumptions you may be making. Identify what’s at the root of your reaction.
This takes practice as well, but the more you practice it, the more skilled you’ll become at this step. Here is a good tool to reference during this process: the Feelings Inventory from The Center for Nonviolent Communication.
Determine next steps.
Once you’ve paused and identified your assumptions and the root cause, you’ll be in a better place to identify what action you need to take next.
The more you actively practice observing your reaction, pausing, identifying, and moving forward, the more your brain will recognize your new pattern and your practice will become more natural.
Start taking action.
Ask yourself: when do I get reactive? Start noticing when you get reactive and then pause. Try to identify what’s going on for you in that moment.
You can practice this by thinking about a past experience that you felt a negative reaction to. Practice the process I’ve shared here by taking yourself back through that experience and identifying what it was you were feeling, the root cause, and how you could have taken action to move forward in a conscious, present mindset.
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