Reactive vs Responsive Communication

We have all been there. We hadn't had our coffee yet, the dry cleaner lost part of our order, or we spent a week with our in laws...and we lost it. It looks different for everybody. Maybe you yell, maybe you storm off, maybe you say something you would not normally say. Whatever it looks like for you, we have all been there.

So where is there

There is a reactionary state. A state in which our fight, flight, or freeze center of our brain (and sympathetic nervous system) has been activated by a perceived threat. When the treats are of real physical implication, this automatic reaction is helpful and even life preserving. But when we fly off the handle at a PTA meeting?...not so helpful. 

If fact, our reactive sides can flare up in smaller, less noticeable ways in daily interactions and can be incredibly damaging to interpersonal relationships. Think about your last tense conversation with your spouse, employer, or teen. Now that you have some space from that interaction, is there anything you would do differently? Anything you might rephrase or omit completely? You might have been being reactive. 

So what does it look like to be responsive? 

To be present

Are you fully present in your conversations or are you multitasking, mentally checking your to do list, checking emails on your phone? To be present is to not only be present with our attention toward the other person but also toward ourselves. Being aware of any feelings, sensations, or thoughts during a conversation helps you stay present. A good way to start is by doing a body scan. Notice any tension or discomfort you might be holding and then ask yourself what feelings might be associated with these sensations. 

To pause

Give yourself permission to not respond immediately. Ask for more time if you need it or just take a breath. 

To use I-Statements

I-Statements are a way of communicating feelings and thoughts in a responsive way. The author of the statement claims ownership of their feelings and offers helpful information to the listener. They are structured like this: "I feel....when...I need..." I-Statements always start with "I feel" in order to take responsibility and ownership of ones feelings instead of blaming the other person. So instead of saying, "You made me sad" it is more effective to say "I feel sad." The "when" part is tricky. It is a time to give the listener a concrete example or time when you had a particular feeling. This is done best without judgement or interpretation and with merely facts. Example: I felt sad when you were a complete asshole. You can see the potential problems with this right? Name calling, judgement, lack of concrete examples. Try this instead: "I felt sad when you did not call me yesterday." The "I need" portion of the sentence is to give the listener more information on how they can better connect with you. Ask for what you need, but keep it realistic. 

To Look Under the Anger

Anger is most often a secondary emotion. When we blow up and are reactive we are often operating from anger. What if we were to look under the anger? What might we find? Sadness, rejection, loneliness, fear, resentment. Connecting with the underlying feelings and communicating from a place that acknowledges them will help facilitate more authentic communication and connection.