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.
The 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.”
Not 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.