Practice Split-Second Hesitation

In an earlier post, Your First Choice, we looked at the difference between a reaction (a thoughtless action) and a response (a thoughtful action). The executive summary was this:

Our natural answer to challenging, anxiety-provoking situations is to react. Reacting without thought is instinctual and critical to our survival when we face imminent danger. Yet, most of us rarely face imminent danger. We face conflict and inconvenience. Rather than react, we can train ourselves to thoughtfully respond. By doing so, we nurture the “non-anxious presence” within.

Individuals who develop and promote this non-anxious presence are sought out to lead and to counsel. By furnishing a climate of calm, you can offer true value to any situation just by showing up.

So, how do you develop that non-anxious presence?

The first step is to fully accept that conflict is ever present. Time and again, we are told that “Peace is not the absence of conflict.”

Peace is an attitude. And while it doesn’t require the absence of conflict, it does mandate the absence of anxiety.

Anxiety is a fear of something that has yet to happen. All too often, it is also the fear of something that may never happen. So the non-anxious presence creates an atmosphere of clarity out of a cloud of doubt — a recognition that conflict, while present, can be manageable and survivable.

With this realistic knowledge that conflict will always be attacking or at least lurking, the second step is to learn to create, in addition to clarity, a bit of nothing . . . space.

Our brains are incredibly powerful organs with capacities that still exceed the most super of all supercomputers. One of the sources of the brain’s power is the ability to redirect incoming information through multiple filters and processes. To do that, all your brain needs — all you need — is a little time. Time, even a millisecond, creates space.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Mark van Laere

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Mark van Laere

And a little space brings discernment and consideration. With discernment and consideration comes the opportunity for reaching and exercising wisdom.

The non-anxious person brings that little space to the table. To be that person, you must train yourself to introduce a split-second hesitation that will allow your thoughtless reaction to become a thoughtful response.

The non-anxious person must learn to say . . . “Wait.”

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Leader? Be Different!

You’ve been there. Things are going well for you and those around you. Then suddenly, problems arise. And true leaders step forward.

She’s not always the one with the clearest voice. He’s not the person you’d picture on the bubble gum trading card. But, in the moment, they are clearly leaders.

The world abounds with books, articles, videos, and academic courses on leadership. Based on the sales and the enrollment, the drive to be a leader is a strong one. Despite all of the advice and training, in the moment, many of those with aspiration to lead horribly fail.

Experience indicates that leadership failure occurs as individuals attempt to take control and enforce their will on those around them. It is true, that forceful people do take control in some situations and that others do acquiesce to their quasi-leadership.

Yet, narrative after narrative told after a time of high stress and even danger tells a different story. True leaders are chosen by their followers. A hierarchical structure can be enforced and authoritarian orders may be followed. However, leaders transform their followers. And transformation is always the choice of the individual in the ranks.

Peter Steinke, in his book written for church leaders, Congregational Leaders in Anxious Times, speaks to the key capabilities of true leaders. Steinke says that leaders must learn to balance two life forces — individuality and togetherness. For those who have taken conflict resolution training, you will recognize in this concept the underlying principles of the Dual Concern Model.

Dual Concern Simple.007In the Dual Concern Model, we learn that conflict is most effectively managed by balancing our concern for self with our concern for others. While the conflict modes of  avoidance, competition, accommodation, and compromise are useful depending on the circumstances, much better things are accomplished if people can move forward with collaboration.

Steinke asserts that true leadership is recognized in those who have learned this incredible balancing act. And when that recognition takes place, others choose to trust and follow those who have achieved that balance.

The study of group interaction has been greatly enhanced with the lens provided by Murray Bowen in his family system model. Bowen Theory looks at what happens when people come together and interact. It recognizes that every person within a system (or gathering of people) is influenced by the others in that system. In turn, that person influences the rest. While the group is comprised of individuals who all have, to some degree or another, the opportunity to make independent decisions, Bowen Theory begins to explain how peoples’ behaviors create something larger than (and often different from) themselves.

In viewing roles within the system, an individual can be assessed by looking at two variables: (1) his degree of anxiety, and (2) his capacity to differentiate. Steinke, in applying Bowen Theory, emphasizes that the difference between a follower and a chosen leader is the leader’s capacity to differentiate.

Steinke then lists seven behaviors that leaders exhibit and that instill confidence and trust in those who would follow:

  1. Leaders must think clearly.
  2. Leaders must act on principle.
  3. Leaders must define themselves by taking a clear position in issues facing the group.
  4. Leaders must understand their personal, instinctive reactions to others and to situations.
  5. Leaders must learn to regulate their reactions.
  6. Leaders must stay in contact with others and not isolate themselves.
  7. Leaders must choose a responsible course of action.

For those who have read books and taken leadership courses, this looks like a pretty straightforward and easily-accomplished list. However, the leader must achieve each of these tasks while experiencing the same anxiety that others are feeling.

Remember, true leaders are chosen.

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Your First Choice

Difficult moments abound.

Dozens of times a day, you are confronted with those difficult moments. Angry words rain down on you. The assignment on your computer, the one that’s due in two hours, suddenly disappears from your screen. Your co-worker fails to deliver her part of the project. A friend turns to you in a time of great distress.

You have a split second to make a choice, your first choice. The choice isn’t natural and the ability to make it has to be ingrained in your thinking systems.

This instant choice is whether to respond or to react.

REACTThe scenes mentioned above are tension builders. In fact, some of them take your stress level from 0 to 100 instantly. When your body senses a difficult moment unfolding like that, it goes into action. Specifically, a part of your brain called the amygdala captures the general landscape and, in many cases, immediately sends instructions all over your body on how to deal with the problem. You react.

While the brain is involved in this activity and what happens during this time is an incredible story of our brain’s ability, reaction involves little, if any, of what we define as thought.

Sometimes, when we have a little time to see something coming or we have conditioned ourselves to expect the unexpected, our amygdala will reroute the incoming threat and stress stimuli to another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is the place of thought. And the left prefrontal cortex is where our powers of primary decision making or discernment take place. When properly prepared, the brain can move matters here for handling. You respond.

Leaders and peacemakers — and that group is often comprised of the same individuals — are those who have spent time preparing for difficult moments and who, in most cases, can choose to respond rather than react.

You can’t control what your initial impulses are when you’re confronted with a challenge. And in face of danger, you often need to react to those impulses for survival’s sake.

Most often, you can condition yourself to make a choice and bring your thinking ability into the equation. The difference between responding and reacting may be ever so slight at that difficult moment. Yet the work of time and emotion can create a rapidly divergent outcome with tremendous implications for ongoing relationships and long-term positive results.

Again, the key that allows you to turn from reaction (action with no thought) to response (thoughtful action) is your preparation. You can train yourself to be what scholars call the “non-anxious presence.”

S-b Logo.001Not surprisingly, the non-anxious presence is a foundational element of any private or public discourse involving disagreement. In the next couple of articles, we will look at ways that you can prepare and nurture your non-anxious presence and how you can employ it to help those around you who are in difficult moments.

All in all, you will be helping to bring a better understanding.

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Busting Fear

You’re afraid.

Nothing new about that. Fear is a force that is introduced early in your life. It has a purpose. Fear is given to you to keep you safe. Fear keeps you away from the edge of a cliff. Fear puts you on heightened alert when you’re threatened. A little fear can be a good thing.

But fear has its ugly side. Fear can:

  • paralyze you.
  • prompt you to make irrational decisions.
  • end relationships.
  • turn your life into a hell on earth.

Fear is more than a feeling. It’s a physical and mental state that demands your attention and drains your energy. Fear left unaddressed has another devastating feature — it multiplies inside you and can spread quickly to others nearby.

The bottom-line answer to fear is . . . courage.

flooded school busIf you were asked to visualize courage, you would likely describe images of people who do extraordinary things. A typical movie script would read, “She knew no fear. Calmly walking into the churning waters, she knew what she had to do to save the 38 children on the disabled school bus.” After the movie, you would remember her brilliance, her strength, and her resolve. But those things, while truly great, aren’t indicators of her courage.

Courage is the ability to conquer fear.

Courage manifests itself in an instant. Courage appears on the big screen when your hero, in the face of danger and tremendous odds, decides to do something. Interviews with real-life heroes rarely reveal that they knew exactly what to do in that moment — only that they needed to do something. And that something didn’t have to be anything particularly grand, just helpful.

Most of us aren’t faced with flood waters and schoolchildren in peril every day. Instead, we confront fears that stem from our fears of failure, success, and loss.

So, when you’re afraid and it’s time to do something, what do you do?

  1. Label your fear. Ask yourself, what am I afraid of? This doesn’t require a self-psychoanalytical session. Identify the source of your fear. This is not where you take action. Just make certain you know what you fear.
  2. Explore possible outcomes. What is likely to occur if your fear is realized? Counselors tell us that most people conjure up dire results that have very little chance of happening.
  3. Consider the possibilities of your next step. What can you do in this moment that would be helpful? Perhaps all you need to do is ask questions and get a better understanding. Maybe you need to run back into the burning building. Sometimes you simply need to take a deep breath and wait until the threat becomes more clear. Whatever you do, your next step must be helpful.
  4. Weigh the costs. Fear can stem from a true danger that is often associated with a possibility of loss. Loss of life and limb. Loss of a friend. Loss of an opportunity. Before moving forward, balance the potential success of your next step against those dangers.
  5. Take positive action. This one is a little deceiving. Sometimes the best positive action is waiting. Occasionally, avoidance is the appropriate reaction to something that surfaces fear. Most often, the next step is something rather ordinary that may appear extraordinary in the presence of fear.

Fear is an essential part of your survival system. Certainly you should take notice when you feel fear. But fear was never intended to rule your life.

Deal with your fears. Find courage in taking the next step.

Remember, you were divinely designed with the innate ability to make decisions and exercise your free will. Don’t let fear take that away from you.

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Afraid to Talk

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/such a beautiful disaster

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/such a beautiful disaster

She raised her hand, signaling him to stop.

As she walked — almost ran — from the room, her throat was filled with all the things she would like to say. Minutes later, her mind was jammed tight with all the things she should have said. Glancing back, she knew he was still there. Sitting at that table. Perhaps angry. Maybe a bit bewildered.

She knew that she needed to return to the conversation. Her opportunity was fading. But she couldn’t turn around.

She was afraid.

Fear is one of our primary motivators. It can spur us to full speed in a matter of seconds. Or fear can bring us to a dead stop in an instant.

Fear is an integral part of our protective system. Much of our fear is triggered subconsciously — automatic responses to perceived threats. In close physical conflict, combatants do little strategizing about what comes next. Yet, the brain is alive as it processes incoming messages from the senses. Fear serves us well as we pursue that important goal of survival.

But what role does fear play in non-physical conflicts which, for most of us, comprise the largest portion of our conflict menu?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Mark van Laere

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Mark van Laere

Unfortunately, the conscious consideration of our fears most often results
in two responses. The first is paralysis. We become overwhelmed with the “What if?” Our fear is not only about the initial perceived threat, but all of the potential harms that might result — both real and imagined. Our brains are overloaded with the possibilities for action. Yet, the chief solution to this often panic-filled moment? Do nothing.

The second response is more worrisome and, thus, creates additional fear. Often when frightened, an individual will choose a course of action without fully discerning the possible outcomes.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I was just angry.”

Angry, perhaps. But underlying other emotions, fear is often the culprit that triggers an action or reaction that we come to regret. Through fear, we find ourselves heading down a precarious path.

The primary reason for our avoidance of conversation or our harmful response is the fear that we will be pressured to change our positions or directions. The fear of change is often irrational. In many cases, change is not inevitable — at least not without everyone understanding and accepting the consequences it brings.

In a future post, I’ll present a game plan that can reduce or eliminate that fear for you, your friends, and even those who oppose you.

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