By Ike Lasater with Julie Stiles
Brian walks into the team meeting on Monday morning determined not to overreact when co-worker Phil speaks up. During the last two meetings, Brian has made angry remarks that reveal his irritation with Phil. This time, Brian has resolved to stay calm. Whatever wrongheaded things Phil says will be to Brian like water off a duck’s back.
But as soon as Phil begins talking, Brian feels tense. Soon, he finds himself in a familiar pattern, his heart racing as he offers a few clipped comments about all that is wrong with Phil’s opinion. Brian leaves the meeting upset with Phil and disappointed with himself for not having acted the way he wanted to in Phil’s presence.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation like Brian’s, having failed in an attempt to behave differently? Maybe you’ve berated yourself for not having the will power, for not being “enlightened” enough, or for failing to control yourself better. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that shifting a habitual pattern of reaction is not simple! In fact, most of us are never taught how to do it. The good news is that, with practice, changing habitual reactions is a learnable skill. What follows is a guide to the process of creating positive behavioral shifts.
Step 1: Becoming Aware
The first step in making a change is becoming aware of what it is you want to change. It was not until after his second meeting with Phil that Brian became aware of how affected he was by his own anger. He realized that he was not enjoying the situation with Phil and wanted to do something else. He had not recognized this in the heat of the moment.
Creating awareness of what you are going through as you go through it is one of the most difficult pieces of the whole changing habits process. In order to develop a new awareness, try to develop cues that alert you to a particular situation. These cues can be bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, or something intrinsic to the situation itself, such as hearing certain words come out of your mouth or recognizing the pattern of an interaction. A cue helps you to notice you that you are in a situation in which you want to be making a different choice.
Brian’s cue might be a particular sensation in his body that lets him know that he is becoming irritated. He might detect a habitual action, such as when he begins to move forward in his chair when Phil speaks. Or he might notice a particular thought that recurs whenever he hears Phil’s voice (“Oh boy, there he goes again”) and this can serve as yet another cue to spark awareness of the behavior that Brian wants to change.
Step 2: Using Awareness to Learn
Once you become aware of a situation in which you reacted in a way you didn’t like, you can reflect back upon what happened and learn from it. This is true no matter how long ago it happened. When you think about your experiences, you build the muscles of your metacognition (thinking about thinking). The key piece of this part of the process is mourning. When you think about what happened and mourn the needs that were not met for you in that situation, it helps you be clear that you would like those needs to be met in the future.
In reflecting on the meeting in which he again lost his cool, Brian mourns that his needs for harmony and collaboration with his team were not met by his reactions to Phil. He also realizes that he reacts so strongly to Phil because of his fear that Phil’s ideas are going to push Brian out of the project. To be pushed out in this way would not meet Brian’s needs for contribution or acknowledgment of his previous work.
Step 3: Creating Alternatives
Once you become aware of needs not met, you can strategize about how to meet those needs going forward. When you think about a “failed” situation or interaction, consider what you would like to have done differently. This will offer an alternative to your habitual behavior pattern.
Brian might decide that, the next time he is in a meeting with Phil, he will take a few deep breaths as soon as he notices that he is becoming angry. He may also plan to connect with his needs (for collaboration and contribution) and then speak honestly about what he is feeling. Brian can informally practice doing these things as he thinks about his behavior in past meetings. He may even try out his new responses in a role-playing exercise. Either technique will give Brian access to more options the next time he finds himself getting irritated with his coworker.
Step 4: Choosing the Alternative Option
Once you develop an in-the-moment awareness that you want to respond differently to a stressor and once you have at least one alternative behavior option in hand, you still have to choose that option. Habitual reactions are difficult to shed. Have you ever thought, “I’m going to create a wreck here” in the midst of a charged interaction and then—despite that heads-up warning to yourself— gone ahead created a wreck anyway? No matter how destructive, the habitual behavior may feel irresistible.
Imagine Brian’s next meeting with Phil. Perhaps Brian will use his cues to become aware that he is getting angry. He might remember that he practiced taking deep breaths and connecting with his needs before saying anything. Despite these helpful tools, Brian may still be tempted to go down the same path he’s traveled before, rather than choosing the new behavior. Familiarity is powerful lure. That’s why it helps to have really mourned all the needs not met by the habitual choice. Remembering that the habitual pattern (of lashing out at Phil) really did not meet his needs will help Brian overcome that urge for momentary satisfaction in favor of trying something that is more satisfying in the long run.
Step 5: Doing the New Behavior
At last, you’re there — you actually enact your new behavior, the same new behavior you had practiced. You may not do it perfectly; it may end up being a combination of new and old behavior. You just do the best you can in that moment. In developing awareness through cues, creating a new option, and choosing that option, you have built a new capacity. Doing the behavior is about having the skill and language to implement your choice.
Brian takes his few deep breaths and connects with his needs. After one more deep breath, he says what he had practiced; “I’m concerned when I hear you talking about the project that way, Phil, because I would like to have some assurance that the weeks of work we have already put in to this are not being thrown out. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to tell me how you see the link between what we have been working on and what you are proposing?” Brian’s observation, his description of a need (for assurance), and his straightforward request may mark the beginning of a whole new relationship for Brian and Phil.