Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness, Reacting vs Responding, Self-Awareness, Striving Styles

Be Mindful: Respond rather than React

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is power to choose our response” – Viktor Frankl

No doubt all of us, including me, have reacted at times in our lives when we should have responded.  Upon reflection, we can often identify those events based on how we felt afterwards. We may have wished we hadn’t said something, or chosen a different tone, or had simply removed ourselves from the situation until we knew how to respond well.  As adults, we all know the right thing to do.  Yet, often our emotions get the best of us and we react – at work, at home, in the car, on social media, etc.  Until we are shown, taught, or learn something different, we often don’t know how to control our reactions, or even recognize our behaviour.  

So what is the difference between reacting vs responding?

A reaction is instinctive, based in the moment and doesn’t take the long term effects of what we do or say into consideration. While reacting in an emergency involving life and death where your survival is at stake is important, it’s when we react in everyday situations that we damage our relationships, and potential for a positive outcome.  A reaction is typically quick, tense and aggressive, while a response is thoughtful, calm and non-threatening.  A reaction typically provokes and perpetuates negative reactions.

When we react, we aren’t choosing.  Rather we are allowing our reptilian (or instinctual brain), the oldest part of our brain, to take control. The reptilian brain is all about survival: movement, breathing, circulation, hunger and reproduction, territory, and social dominance. A reaction uses our reptilian brain, which is survival-oriented.  Based on what your emotions trigger you to do, you act without really thinking through the consequences.  This might turn out okay but often a reaction is something you regret later. When we choose to simply react to what occurs in our lives, we often behave defensively, such as bating or taking revenge, blame, scapegoating, etc.  Stephen Covey defines the difference between reactive and responsive individuals as follows: “Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance. Proactive people carry their own weather with them.” 

“Respond don’t react.  When you react to a person’s negative comments or actions in an angry, overly emotional or aggressive way, then you are giving that person power over you.  If a person can easily get a rise from you, then you are no longer in control.  If you take a moment and respond in a calm, healthy, honest and real way, then you are in control.  You are not allowing anyone to take your power away, or invoke a reaction from you.” Maria Consiglio

A reaction is usually quick and typically:

  • involves the reptilian/instinctual and the limbic/emotional brain.
  • is emotional.
  • involves speaking without thinking.
  • is often tense and aggressive.
  • creates conflict.
  • perpetuates discontentment and disagreement.
  • others are in control.

However, as highly evolved mammals, we have three brains: the reptilian brain or survival-oriented brain; the emotional or limbic brain; and the neocortex brain.  While our limbic/emotional brain is highly reactive and subconsciously involves our emotions and feelings, the neocortex is the thinking part of the brain, and where we have the capability to respond rather than react derives itself.  

It is the neocortex where we develop thoughtful responses.   This is where we gather and digest the necessary information, where we decipher what we are seeing and feeling, and where we put it into context. It’s future-focused, and where we understand the world so we are capable of making sound decisions.  It is why when thinking about how you might respond in a more mindful fashion, you can plan your future responses and strengthen your ability to take action that is in your best interest.

A response is a conscious decision that usually comes more slowly, and:

  • involves your neocortex or rational brain.
  • isn’t based on your emotional trigger.
  • involves acting by really thinking through consequences.
  • it includes a plan for future responses.
  • it’s non-threatening.
  • it takes time.
  • allows for assertiveness without aggression.
  • resolves conflict.
  • you are in control of your life.

While it’s not always easy to know how to respond best in every situation, being self-aware and emotionally intelligent help tremendously (topics I’ve discussed in my earlier posts). Like self-awareness and emotional intelligence, knowing how respond is a skill that can be developed.  When we know first-hand the negative experience that can result from reacting, we are far more motivated to make sure we respond in a similar situation.  It takes practice and requires us to be able to pause in nearly any situation before speaking or acting. 

To achieve our full potential, and become more successful both personally, and professionally, we need to be more aware of, and have more influence over our responses.  From recent brain research, we know that our brains are plastic and has the ability to develop connections with the other parts.   According to Dr. Bill Crawford, a psychologist who studies the brain, and concepts of responding and reacting, our brains are constantly rewiring with every thought, emotion, and/or behavior. He says that “when we respond to life in a way that is more effective… the brain creates and reinforces neural pathways from our limbic system up to our neocortex”.

How Mindfulness helps reprogram your brain

“Mindfulness give you time. Time give you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. You don’t have to be swept away by your feeling. You can respond with wisdom and kindness rather than habit and reactivity.” – Bhante H. Gunaratana

Your thoughts (beliefs) create your feelings; your feelings create your actions; your actions create your results.  Mindfulness is awareness of what is happening in the present moment, including awareness of thoughts, without any attachment to whatever you notice.  Mindfulness is helpful because it creates space between thoughts and actions.  By increasing your awareness of your thoughts, you can begin to break old automatic or habitual chain reactions between your triggers, thoughts, feelings and actions.  Each time you choose to not to activate your old trigger-thought-feeling-action-result sequence, you weaken the connections.  Furthermore, each time you choose a different action, you program new connections.  With repetition and practice, you hardwire these new programs so your new thoughts and responses become your new habits.

When we respond to life, we:

  • become the directors, rather than the followers
  • establish stronger relationships
  • become better communicators
  • minimize confrontations
  • find more peace
  • reduce regret
  • build a confidence that we can handle any situation we come up against
  • we thrive!

In essence, when choosing to respond versus react, you are taking charge of your life.  Choosing to be responsive is taking responsibility of our lives. Recognizing the power of our words, our behavior, our tone, our delivery, etc. will make a positive difference to those in our lives. 

“Instead of asking others to change their behaviour, your power is in your changing your reaction to their behaviour.  You have no control over their behaviour, but you do have complete control over your reaction to it.” – Abraham Hicks

How you can build a response habit:

Think of a time or situation that always causes conflict for you.  What are the things you tell yourself about the situation? How do you usually react to it? Record your answers. 

Practice responding to challenging situations until these responses become reactions.

Each time you enter into a situation that you know tends to cause you to react, take a few minutes to write down how you normally react and how you want to respond instead.  What will it look like? What will you say differently? How will you act differently?


The Gift of Presence


“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I feel extremely fortunate to have had people in my life who have made me feel special.  While we all want to be liked, loved, and happy, there are some people who have made or make us feel valued.  They make us feel special.  My grandmother was one of those people.  Although she passed away thirty years ago, there is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think about her.  What a gift and legacy she left!  I think about this a lot because I’d also like to leave that legacy with the people that I love.  But if the past few weeks are any indication, I have a lot of work to do.  So with this lofty goal in mind, I’m prompted to ask:  How can I be a better mother, spouse, sister, aunt, daughter, and friend?

Once again, I find the words in Maya Angelou, who sums it up so well “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  What was it about my grandma that made me feel so special?  How do I (or we) do this? The answer is – by being present.

How we nurture relationships by being present.

So many of our lives are filled with making lists, checking them off, all the while thinking about the next thing we have to do. We’re constantly busy in doing mode and it can sometimes feel like a burden or an annoyance to have to stop, even momentarily, for the people we love.  And this can be really difficult sometimes, at least for me it is.  With juggling my business, my family, and all of the other responsibilities I have, I often have a difficult time being fully present. I am guilty of daydreaming when I should be focused on tasks, looking at my phone while also having a conversation, getting caught up in multitasking and rushing through my to-do list. More often than not, I’m not 100% engaged in any given moment.  Yet, there are so many advantages that come from living in the moment.

Getting present requires a certain level of self-awareness. It’s about putting aside your own thoughts, worries, fears, and insecurities and genuinely taking an interest in what that person is saying.  There’s a saying that how you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you.  When you lack the ability to make people feel good about themselves it does nothing more than highlight your own inadequacies.

Whether you’re a parent, spouse, friend, or leader, if you believe that people matter, you must become good at making people feel great.  If you want to build and maintain lasting relationships, to consistently positively influence people, to make people feel good about themselves, and to be the kind of people everyone wants to be around, you must make them feel good.  When you press pause—physically and mentally—and hold a space for a person to fully express themselves, that person feels valued, heard, seen, and loved.  Isn’t that what all us ever really want?

How we become more present in our relationships.

  • Be intentional . Start with setting an intention to be more present. It sounds simple and it is. Yet most of us don’t think about how we want to show up in our relationships.  As you begin to engage with the people, having an intention to be more present acts as a reminder, anchors you in the present. You become aware of those times when you are the most present and those times when you’re not. Start to notice what distracts you from the present moment. Phone calls, to-do lists, busyness overload, social media—whatever it is. When you become aware of this stuff, you can work with it or eliminate it so it doesn’t keep distracting you.
  • Create boundaries around your time. Make sure you factor in yourself when organizing your day.  Be sure to schedule your time to include getting your needs met, physically, mentally or emotionally.  Schedule time to get your work done and focus on your priorities during that time.  Then be sure to schedule the time to be present for others.  Say no if it doesn’t fit with your goals or priorities.  I like the expression “if it’s not a hell yes, then it’s a no”.  It’s can become very easy to drop what you’re doing and focus on others’ priorities, but we all know that we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves first.
  • Pay attention to how you feel around certain people. Unfortunately, there are people in our lives who do not make us feel good about ourselves, who can take up a lot of our time with negative energy, and can bring us down.  Next time you’re engaging with that person, take a moment to check in with where you’re at and ask if you’re supporting yourself. For example, are you feeling centered, confident, and calm? What story are you telling yourself about this situation?
  • Put your stuff away. My personal pet peeve is when I’m with someone, in a meeting, having a conversation, or at a dinner, etc. and they are constantly looking at their phone, or prioritizing answering a text or call (unless they have expressed they are expecting a call). Doing this suggests that they you are not their priority.  At least turn off the sound.  Be sure to put your phone away when you walk in the door, especially if you have kids.  And please, don’t walk in the door on a call – finish the call before you come in.  It’s a good practice to put your phone or computer away while in a conversation.
  • Be authentically interested. Lean in, keep eye contact, and listen more than you talk.  One of our deepest human needs is to be understood, valued, and respected for who we are.  However, most people seek to get their point across and be understood first.  In Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Principles of Highly Effective People”, the 5th principle is to “seek first to understand, then be understood”.  Here are the three steps he suggests:
    1. First, listen with your eyes, heart, and ears – listening with your ears isn’t enough. Only 7% of communication comes from our words.  The rest comes from body language (53%) and the tone of our voice (40%).  To hear what other people are really saying, you need to listen to what they are not saying.
    2. Second, stand in their shoes. Try to see the world as others see it and feel as they feel.
    3. Third, practice mirroring. Repeat back to the person what they just said.  It is not mimicking.  Put it in your own words.  This lets the person know you understand what they are saying without judging or giving advice.  Mirroring phrases “so, as I see it…”; “I can see that you’re feeling…”; “So, what you’re saying is…”
  • Practice mindfulness and learn to meditate.  I started my practice a few years ago as part of the Striving Styles certification process, not only because is it part of the curriculum I teach, but because I realized it’s a vital step in becoming more self-aware and personal growth.   It’s pretty difficult to be present in our relationships if we aren’t present with ourselves. For example,  I was away a lot over the past month and wasn’t meditating or practicing mindfulness regularly. I really noticed how this negatively affected my patience and presence in my relationships.   Being mindful and practicing meditation has so many benefits, not only for ourselves but also for those close to us.  I encourage you to watch the TEDx talk: The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger, by Shauna Shapiro if you would like to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.  But really, practicing mindfulness is really very simple.

What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.”   – Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Mindfulness is our ability to pay attention to the present moment with curiosity and without judgement.  Mindfulness can be cultivated through a formal practice like meditation…and we can bring mindful attention to our daily activities.

Here are five simple ways to practice mindfulness in your daily life:

  1. Focus on your breath. Take a few really deep, controlled breaths. Deep breathing helps reduce stress, a source of fatique, and increases the level of oxygen in the blood.  Techniques can be as simple as inhaling for five seconds, holding your breath for four seconds and slowly exhaling for four seconds.  You can also try other techniques, which require different positions.
  2. Go for a walk outside. Being in nature can both invigorate you and make you feel more focused.  Here is a simple walking meditation:
    1. Simply close your eyes and listen to the sounds of nature. Stand solidly on the ground and spend several moments noticing how your body feels. Start with the soles of the feet and work upward, relaxing each body part as you become aware of it.  Then, open your eyes and begin to walk slowly, focusing on your surroundings and what you see, hear, smell and feel. Pay close attention to the sensations of the sun, wind and grass on your feet and skin.
  3. Use a meditation app. I really like guided meditations. I enjoy listening to the messages and I like the instruction and structure.  You can decide on the length of time (5, 10 minutes), choose your topic (relax, sleep, focus, anxiety, self-compassion, manifestation, morning, etc.).  Here are a few apps you might like to check out:  Calm, Insight Timer, Headspace, Deepak Chopra.  You can also search guided meditations on Youtube.
  4. Focus intently on the task at hand. I can get easily distracted and overwhelmed when I have a lot of different tasks and things I’m juggling, so picking just one and focusing on completing it helps me be more mindful.
  5. Observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them. Notice when your mind is in the past or future, and gently return to the present. Ideally write them down.  Even if you’re not a writer, giving yourself the freedom to put pen to paper, without judgment, can be a helpful emotional release as well, freeing up your mind to focus on what’s happening in the current moment.

Advantages of being fully present in relationships.

Calmness.  There’s a real sense of peacefulness that comes when I’m not all agitated thinking about everything I need to do, and instead just focus on being with that person, enjoying the here and now.

Increased empathy and compassion.  Having empathy improves relationships.  Brene’ Brown explains,

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.” – Brene’ Brown

So having empathy helps us understand others when they communicate with us. Plus, it can reduce the amount of conflict in the individual’s life. The most common reason why other people become angry is they feel misunderstood.

Clarity and focus.   I do a better job and enjoy the process more when I give my full attention to whatever I’m working or on whom I’m working with, whether that’s spending time with my kids, writing my blog, working, gardening, etc.

Increased happiness and optimism.  When I’m more aware of my actions and more engaged, no matter the task I’m performing, it improves my outlook on life. Feeling more gratitude and focusing on the positive develops stronger emotional bonds with others.   I adopt more of an abundance mindset when I’m more self-confident.

More meaningful conversations. When I’m actively participating in a conversation and truly taking the time to listen to what the other person has to say, I find that I always take something important away from the discussion. Whether it’s a lesson or something I learned about the person, there is a lot to be gained from being present and actively engaged.

Appreciating the little things more.  It’s easy to overlook all of the simple pleasures in life when we are trying to do too many things at once. It’s really a shame, because sometimes we can be so fixated on creating our ideal, happy life, that we forget to see the happiness and pleasure that are already right in front of us.

“Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic.” – Stephen R. Covey

What Do YOU Think?

Do you struggle with being fully present? What are some ways that you’ve found are helpful in being more present?  What are the biggest challenges to staying in the moment? Let us know in the comments!