I was in a large meeting at my company, sharing an idea that had occurred to me, when one of my younger colleagues raised her hand and jumped in. “I’m feeling like we’re getting off track,” she said with some impatience. “We have an agenda, and I think we ought to stick to it.”
Stung, I fired back with righteous indignation. My colleague went silent, but the tension hung between us like a thick, humid fog, which quickly enveloped the room. We moved on with the meeting, but I felt uneasiness in my stomach, and my attention kept returning to the interaction.
I had every right to feel irritated, I told myself. She interrupted me. I was making an important point. I hadn’t been speaking for long. She was being rude. Blah, blah, blah. In truth, I was trying to make myself feel better by silently marshaling a case for why my reaction was justified. It wasn’t working.
I took a couple of deep breaths, and it occurred to me that evaluating what she had done was beside the point. We weren’t in a court of law. This was not about proving my point or brokering a compromise. Whatever she did or didn’t do, I was responsible for the way I reacted. Not partially responsible, but completely responsible. I needed to let her off the hook. Paradoxically, this insight made me feel lighter and more in control.
How often, in the course of a week at work (or at home), are your responses triggered by something someone else says or does? How often do you feel irritated, defensive or silently resentful because you’ve had your time wasted or you’ve been misunderstood, undervalued or treated unfairly? And how much energy does all this consume?
What happens when we feel a sense of threat in our environment is primitive and predictable. Unconsciously and automatically, we move into the physiological state known as “fight or flight.” Our prefrontal cortex begins to shut down, and the sympathetic nervous system takes over so we can react more quickly and instinctively.
If a lion is charging at us, this response is appropriate. But when the perceived threat is subtler and more subjective —- as it nearly always is in modern life — we’re still limited to the same zero-sum reactions. We can attack in an effort to vanquish the threat, or retreat and feel like resentful victims. Neither reaction serves us well if we have to keep working and living with the people who sometimes trigger the response.
Taking responsibility changes all that. When the “fight or flight” response is triggered, the first move is to focus on your physiology, so you don’t react automatically. The mantra we use with clients is, “Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.” Breathing deeply is the most reliable way to quiet the nervous system and return control to the prefrontal cortex. Only then are you in a position to make a conscious choice about how to respond.
Almost invariably, the reaction is triggered when our sense of worthiness feels threatened. What I realized in the moments after my colleague interrupted me was that I had to take responsibility for holding my own value. If I didn’t, I was leaving it in her hands. Only when my value no longer felt at threat did it make sense to have a conversation.
Once I got my faculties back, my first responsibility was to examine my own role in our small drama. Without judging her reaction or feeling compelled to get her to respond in any particular way, how had I helped to create the conflict?
As I reflected, it dawned on me that talking about my idea was partly an effort to bring attention to myself, when the agenda was about something else. Reacting the way I did made me neither the leader, the colleague nor the person I wanted to be. It also escalated the conflict rather than helping to resolve it. No one benefited.
The problem is that none of us ever wants to feel wrong, at fault or even uncomfortable, if we can avoid it. When we feel threatened, and the consequence is conflict and unhappiness, it’s easier to look outside ourselves and blame someone else.
Truly taking responsibility — the notion that we’re in charge of how we respond no matter what comes at us — requires self-acceptance. It’s about the capacity to value and appreciate ourselves in spite of our countless missteps and limitations — to say, “Yes, I messed that up but that’s not all of who I am.” Shunryu Suzuki, author of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” captured this dual challenge in a wonderfully wry observation he made to his followers: “All of you are perfect just as you are,” he told them, “and you could use a little improvement.”
It was the improvement part I had in mind when I walked over to my colleague during a break and took responsibility for what I did. I felt better for it, and so did she.
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