Recently I had an interesting conversation about the difference between responding to a situation based on your values, and reacting based on your emotions. The key concept here being that sometimes we have an event (or ‘stimulus’) and a reaction, and that reaction isn’t aligned with our values or what we believe is the ‘true us’, it’s just what comes out.
Renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote eloquently on the power of choice amidst the space between stimulus and response. Prior to this conversation I had never considered that space in terms of values, but upon reflection, it makes perfect sense.
There’s the knee-jerk way I can react to an event (the emotional way) or the more considered, values-based way (the way my Platonic ideal of myself would react).
I often encounter this dichotomy in my business life. I know that especially when I’m worried about something in the workplace, whether it’s a feature that I think needs to be added to my company’s product or a topic I want my colleague to agree with me on that she or he isn’t taking as seriously as I’d like, I tend to escalate things. Anxiety sets in, and I start to view the element at hand as mission critical — a potential direct cause of future failure. I need for whoever I’m speaking with to be as worried as I am, and my emotions take over. I become very pointed in my language, expressing conviction that I might not have just to make things seem ultra-serious. My posture tenses and I begin biting the inside of my right cheek. My voice is terse and I move into argument and debate mode instead of collaboration and community mode. And those are the very values I hold so dear — working together and being empathetic to others’ needs and opinions, yet here I am, doing nearly the exact opposite.
So then the question becomes, how do we act more in alignment with our values than with our emotions? How do we create that space that Dr. Frankl spoke so highly of?
For if we can create that space, we can live by our values, watching our emotions float by as they are wont to do, without getting in the way of our expression of our truest selves.
I can’t claim to have any final answers to the question of values alignment, except for that tried and true method of awareness and experimentation. The first step of which is to truly understand the emotion that’s driving your behavior in a given situation. Is it fear, panic, loneliness…are you just hungry? Is it one of those emotions or others that aggrandizes itself without you even being aware? In my example, you might say that what I express is panic, but what I’m actually feeling is that literally everything is resting on this issue being understood or recognized. I’m subconsciously attaching my success as an entrepreneur, as a coworker, even as a human being to the outcome of this potentially forgettable feature or event.
And so, after I have identified the underpinnings of my emotions, I can take a step back. Perhaps creating literal space for myself by going for a quick walk. I can focus on my physical body, straightening my shoulders, leaving my poor cheek to rest in peace for a bit. And then, when I’m ready, I can come back to the topic at hand. Maybe with practice I can do all of this within moments, and perhaps sometimes it takes me a few minutes to work through it.
Next, I can pause and reevaluate my opinion, my stance that this is all so life or death. I can ask my colleague to repeat their views, making sure to articulate what I’m understanding them to mean and to share my concerns honestly and constructively instead of couching them behind other issues. I can ask for clarification using phrasing like, “this isn’t necessarily urgent, but what would you think of doing it this way instead of that way?” and guide the conversation with kind and open questions that lend themselves toward thoughtful rather than defensive answers. Finally, I can ask myself, what are the implications if this doesn’t get done my way? I can write them down and once written, I can use the space of the written word to evaluate what is truth and what is emotion.
And that is, after all, probably the most I can ask of myself and others; that we approach our shortcomings with awareness and an open mind, constantly seeking to experience our emotions, but stay true to our values.