Rampant Reactions


Recently I read Eugene Kennedy’s On Becoming A Counselor, and currently I am immersed in Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think. Both authors make a point which I have been concurrently learning via other avenues as well: my emotional state Big Time affects how I perceive and react to life. Where “life” means any of my developers, my program managers, other testers on my team, my manager, and anyone else I happen to encounter. My application, too.

A corollary is that my emotional state is entirely under my control. (Which has a codicil that if I decide to let my emotional state be determined by anyone/thing else, I give them immense power over me.)

For example, say that on my way out of the cafeteria I suddenly remember that I left my keycard back at the dessert display. I abruptly turn to go back and retrieve it, and as I do I bump into some stranger and spill my food all over their clothing. They may become angry with me and call me a klutz. If I lob their anger back at them and angrily suggest why don’t they watch where they are going, they are likely to escalate in return and before you know it we are engaged in a full scale food fight.

Or I can choose to let their anger wash over me, acknowledge that I mussed their sartorial magnificence and help them clean themselves. Wherein probably calmness returns and the food fights are left to the infants visiting Mummy and Daddy at work.

While this may seem a contrived example, I often see similar situations escalate between coworkers, friends, families, and most every other grouping of people extant in the world today. Rarely do they end well. I, at least, never used to leave one of these feeling upbeat and chipper. Rather, I generally felt angry at the other participants, and probably at the rest of the world too. This tended to influence the way I interacted with the next person, and the process snowballed on itself.

Now, however, when I am conscious and present enough to realize what is occurring, I remember that the other person’s reaction is exactly that – their reaction, chosen by them for reasons only they (possibly don’t) know – and has nothing to do with me. When I am able to remember this, I can preview my reaction and ensure that I am responding to the situation without (as far as I can estimate) escalating it. And lo and behold encounters which in the past likely would have become loud and noisy and maddening now tend to stay more or less civil.

I have not found this easy to do. It takes lots of practice, and while I am better than I was I am not as good as I woud like. One technique I find helpful is to assume that the other person is always meaning to be helpful, even when I don’t see how that could possibly be true. Another is to visualize a shield which surrounds me and buffers me from other people’s emotions and reactions. Far from preventing me from understanding how they are feeling this shield helps me identify and empathize with their apparent emotions without becoming tangled up in them.

(Yes, apparent emotions. What I perceive someone to be experiencing hasn’t necessarily any relation to what they are actually experiencing. Which is a whole ‘nuther blog post.)

This is working for me. How do you stay congruent?

*** Want a fun job on a great team? I need a tester! Interested? Let’s talk: Michael dot J dot Hunter at microsoft dot com. Great testing and coding skills required.

Comments (8)

  1. Nick says:

    I find that after reading a book like this I do a better job of keeping my cool — for about two weeks.  It gradually drifts away.  Although, like any learning, it is now far easier to regain my emotional balance once I am reminded of it.

    I think that when I too had the realization that by not being aware of your own emotions you give others immense power was the point that I really started to "get it."

  2. Mike Brown says:

    Wow. What a very timely message for me. I need to learn how to zenify my life. I believe it would bring me one step closer to being the person I want to be. Deep breath…now exhale all the bad vibes…and inhale again, replacing all the staleness clouding my being with fresh, happy, relaxing thoughts.

    I feel much better now. Thanks Michael!

  3. Len Struttmann says:

    Re: "I find that after reading a book like this I do a better job of keeping my cool — for about two weeks."  This is an interesting observation that matches mine.  Is it coincidental that many conventional religious organiztions customary have weekly services, times to socially interact AND for weekly "refresher courses" on that organization’s life-skills?

    -Len

  4. Dan Stewart says:

    In order to master your mood you must do five things:

    1. Get 6 – 8 hours of sleep at night. (Nobody wants to be around a cranky baby who needs their nappy time.)

    2. Don’t load up on sugar and caffeine. (Both of these drugs are uppers which can make you agitated.)

    3. Exercise regularly. (This allows the releasing of adrenaline. You won’t blow up at the next person that makes you mad because you’re fresh out of the adrenaline you need to make it a really good fight.)

    4. Help those less fortunate than you are face-to-face. (Giving $5 to the March of Dimes won’t cut it. You need to see people where they are hurting and help. Then little fights at the office don’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.)

    5. Center yourself first thing in the morning through prayer, meditation, etc. (I don’t know if you have spiritual beliefs, but quieting yourself down in the morning is important if you want to keep your temper quiet all day.)

  5. As a rule, assuming that people mean well is a fantastic idea.  The vast, vast majority of people really think they are doing the right thing, and acting as if you recognize this is the way to be.  Also- in a potential conflict, offering to help is almost always well recieved, or at least helps defuse the situation.  

    Example: I take a vanpool to work, and one day I decided to grab the van to go out and get a cup of coffee while reviewing some documentation.  Not seeing any of my other riders online, I just grabbed the van and headed out.  When I got back (an hour or so later), I had several emails and voicemails from one of the guys in the van who needed the van for a doctor’s appointment.

    In this case, I could’ve dropped into defensive stance ("How was I supposed to know that you had a Doctor’s appointment?"), but I chose to take the more passive approach: "I’m sorry I had the van when you needed it, I hadn’t realized that you had an appointment.  What can I do to make this up to you?"  The guy was still pretty mad, but realized that there wasn’t really anything else I could do (and I think he realized that I wasn’t entirely in the wrong).

    It isn’t relevant here, but I’ll also reccomend Deep Survival (a book about people responding to life threatening crises) as a great book about dealing with radical organizational change….

  6. anutthara says:

    The best way I’ve found not to go up in smoke at tiny things is to do SKY(http://us.artofliving.org/art-of-living-course/sudarshan-kriya.html). Trust me, it works. Such a noticeable difference in just 15 simple minutes. Awesome!