Think about the last time you did something in the heat of the moment and then immediately regret it. Maybe it was a snarky comment to your spouse after a long day at work. Or perhaps on your way to work, when some ‘idiot’ cut you off, you glared at them as you flew by, or gave them a piece of your mind with a few choice obscenities, or perhaps even offered a physical gesture to express your anger.
As a highly passionate person who acts impulsively at times, I long believed my emotional reactions were just a part of who I was. Like being left-handed or stubborn or extraverted. But unlike an inherent trait, EQ is malleable, a skill like any other that can be learned or improved upon.
Self-regulation is one of the components of EQ. And like all aspects of EQ, it is within one’s control. (Learning this, the word regret came to mind thinking about how I let my ego get the best of me when I left a company on bad terms several years ago. I recently reached out to my former boss to make amends. That letter is included at the end of this article.)
Responding vs. Reacting — What’s the Difference?
Though they sound similar, reacting and responding are two very different things.
A reaction is instinctual and instantaneous. Reactions are rooted in survival instincts — our unconscious mind is trained to constantly scan our environment for threats and address them (the fight, flight, or freeze response). If your unconscious mind identifies a trigger that’s beyond your capacity to cope, you react without considering the consequences. That’s why you sometimes find yourself reacting without thinking because you aren’t thinking.
A response, on the other hand, involves thoughtful consideration. While reactions are often emotional, responses consider the desired outcome of interaction and are adjusted appropriately. A proper response requires a certain amount of emotional regulation and awareness. Responses may come more slowly than reactions, if only by a couple of seconds.
Viktor Frankl says it best, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
If you spend too much of your time reacting instead of learning how to respond appropriately, you’ll risk derailing significant efforts in your personal and professional life. It can cause stress for people around you and make you seem unpredictable, impulsive, and difficult. But because self-regulation can be improved with practice and desire, it’s not a no-win situation.
Below are some practical tips to start replacing impulsive reactions with thoughtful responses:
- Take the Time You Need: This is the most helpful (and essential) way to start responding more thoughtfully. Not every problem requires immediate solutions. Before responding, stop and take a breath. Maybe you need a few seconds, or perhaps you need to sleep on it. In day to day life, this might look like:
- Take several deep breaths before responding to someone who said something that triggers you. Science shows that it only takes 90 seconds to change a mood — that’s about six deep breaths.
- Set a 60-second delay on your email outbox to cancel any emails you sent by accident — even if you don’t struggle with impulsivity, this is an excellent example of having technology work for you.
- Walk away from the Facebook comment thread before you type out a response to someone you disagree with (so so hard, I know!)
- Take a walk after a stressful meeting to calm your nerves before interacting with a coworker or manager.
2. Identify What You’re Feeling: If you feel the urge to give in to a knee-jerk reaction, stop and try to determine what exactly you’re feeling at that moment. Are you angry? Upset? Frustrated? Hurt? Identifying what you’re feeling can help you process your emotions more quickly, enabling you to overcome them more easily.
3. Consider Your Desired Outcome: What do you hope to accomplish with your response? Is it to give someone a piece of your mind? If so, maybe now isn’t the time or place for that — or perhaps it is. Think to yourself: is this helping me move toward my goal — or away from my goal? If it moves you away from your goal, perhaps best to move on without commenting.
4. Proceed with Intention: When you’re ready to respond, do so with intention. Recognize which battles are worth fighting and which are worth avoiding. Ask yourself, “What is the best, most helpful way to respond at this moment?” Then, feel free to respond to the situation.
“Pick your battles. Nope, that’s too many battles. Put some back.”
Like most changes, this will be an ongoing practice that requires you to be more in tune with your emotions than you might be used to. No doubt you will find it challenging at first and will make lots of mistakes. That’s ok — it’s about progression, not perfection. As you keep practicing, you’ll find that it becomes easier to respond thoughtfully to challenging situations instead of reacting emotionally.
This level of self-awareness is incredibly beneficial for leaders. At work, self-aware, thoughtful, and empathetic teams are much more likely to achieve their goals than those that are combative and reactive.
A Letter to My Former Boss
Early in my career, I worked for a high-growth company during the dot com era. I had stock options aligned with my role. The company was eventually sold, and I was disappointed with the number of options I’d been granted. I let my emotions get the best of me and ultimately had an emotional outburst that I regret to this day. Recently, I decided to apologize for my actions. Not sure my 20-something self would have listened to self-regulation wisdom, but I share this in the hope that others can learn from my mistakes.
I imagine this email comes as a surprise as it’s been over 20 years since we worked together.
Shortly after the announcement of the sale of X to X, we had a discussion where I questioned why I ‘only’ received X amount of stock options compared to X and how I felt I had worked hard and deserved more. You responded with disbelief and disappointment, to which I replied with comments that were immature and selfish. That was the last meaningful discussion I recall us having, and I’ve never forgotten it.
As a 27-year-old, I thought I was pretty smart. As a 50-year-old, I humbly realize that being smart is not about proving a point but about how few regrets we can leave in our wake. I’ve learned how important character is and how we should judge ourselves in how we react and respond in our worst moments. And it’s understanding that the learning never ends, no matter how old I get.
So why now? Recently I was sharing this life lesson with a new college grad. She asked if I’d ever apologized for my behavior. I realized I had not. So although it may be 22 years late, allow me to do so now:
I am sorry for how I acted. I am sorry for my arrogance to think my few years of experience deserved a similar reward level as someone with a career’s worth of experience. And I am sorry for the lack of gratitude I showed for the opportunity you provided me by letting me sit by your side during executive-level negotiations.
Thank you, X, for the opportunity to work with and learn from you. You were an instrumental part in building the foundation of my career, and I will take the knowledge gained from you and pay it forward to those entrusted in my care.