In previous posts, Your First Choice and Practice Split-Second Hesitation, we discussed the possibilities of developing a “non-anxious presence” in dealing with conflicts and opportunities that present themselves each day. The executive summary of those two posts 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. The key to development of this great gift is to introduce just a little bit of time into our interactions. The first step is training ourselves to wait.
But how do we do that?
No doubt, the ability to pause and think before we speak or act is an extraordinarily difficult task. We have to discipline ourselves to want something different from our relationships with others. We need to pursue a life where regrets are few. We have to train ourselves to wait.
Waiting is a mental process. Choosing to think multiplies our choices. Many choices bloom into an abundance of opportunities.
As we discussed in the first post, your brain is an efficient organ. The amygdala are constantly scanning input from all of your senses, looking specifically for danger but also triggering automated reactions to most of life’s events. The entry point to the “non-anxious presence” is to teach the amygdala to redirect some decisions to the area of conscious thought, the pre-frontal cortex.
That’s why waiting is a mental process. And as a process, we have to pre-load our brains with thoughts that help us recognizing the incoming messages, separate the truly dangerous pieces from those that appear to share some of the characteristics of those things that threaten imminent harm, and assist in putting that important “first choice” into motion.
The following are five exercises, presented as questions, to assist you in your “wait-training.”
- What am I expecting?
Only on rare occasions are any of us truly ambushed. As you look at your calendar of appointments or glance through your to-do list, learn to anticipate the encounters you will have through your day. Prepare yourself for difficult conversations by generating empathy for others and by committing to discovering their intended meanings before you respond.
- What did I just hear or see?
When conflict or difficulties surface, ask yourself to consider what you are truly observing. Remember, your brain will lean to seeing and hearing dangers and threats. And the result of that tends to mask the intentions and meanings of the other person. Think carefully through what you have observed.
- How do I feel about what I have observed?
The person with the non-anxious presence is not immune from anxiety. Recognize your feelings and inwardly acknowledge your anxiety. Remember that anxiety is the fear of things that have not yet happened. Because of our remarkable imaginations, most anxiety is the fear of things that will never happen. Having acknowledged your personal feelings, embrace your super-hero. Unless physical violence is imminent, this pregnant moment is more likely life-giving than death-producing. Teach yourself not to disregard your feelings, but to put them on hold. After experiencing that moment a few times, you will easily learn the superiority of delayed gratification in peacemaking.
- What “first words” are most likely to nurture true conversation?
Even when you perceive an attack, your well-chosen words can stabilize the environment and, hopefully, present an opportunity for others to “wait” for a response. Thoughtless reactions fuel conflict escalation. Your initial response could well decide whether the situation grows more tense and explosive or eases into a time of thoughtfulness and positive interaction. In preparation, you might want to practice some of the classic “first words.” For example, “I can see you are upset (or frustrated or feel strongly) about this. I want to make certain that I understand your thoughts and feelings. Tell me more about . . .”
- Can we come to an understanding now or can we agree on a time and place that will provide us with sufficient space?
The non-anxious presence requires patience. Not every difficulty can be dealt with as it breaks the surface. The beauty of introducing space, that little bit of time, is that it introduces the hope that those in conflict do have time to consider solutions for mutual benefit. Thus, space engenders breathing room. Agreeing to place problems on hold until a definite time in the future opens the possibility of deeper thinking and more creative solutions.
In all things, be safe. Remember, however, that the non-anxious person — the person trained to wait — increasingly produces safety and peace for all of those around them.