Until last year, I spent most of my life reacting instead of responding. I think back on those times and nothing good ever came from being impulsive. It’s natural to go on the defensive when someone says something negative to you or is rude. Human interaction isn’t a simple a math equation where a negative multiplied by a negative equal a positive outcome. The ego doesn’t work that way. If you react negatively to a negative situation, it’s going to get worse. The absolute best thing you can do is be still and breath.
Here’s an example from my personal life. Last year, I woke up one Saturday morning to a scathing email about a project I was working on. There were several instances questioning my dedication and just as many assumptions in the sender’s words. My initial reaction was to defend myself and prove those words wrong. I spent the next hour dissecting every slight I felt.
After feeling I had thoroughly made my case, I read the email several times, but didn’t hit send.
I dropped my reply into the Drafts folder
There was no remorse at spending that time drafting a rebuttal. It felt really good to get it out if my mind, but sending it would have been bad. I’m pretty sure there would have been irreversible damage from arguing my points. After a moment of stillness, the response lived in my Drafts folder, where it sat for about a month before I deleted it. Taking a moment to think of the ramifications that would pop up because of my harsh response gave me the clarity to figure out how to respond without inciting more negativity.
I checked my ego and replied positively. I sent examples of how the project was progressing and with reassurances; we were still on track to meet deadline.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius said, “To be the rock that waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved, and the raging of the sea still around it.” It’s an instinct to react in defense to a negative situation. Things turn out so much better if you become the rock and let the negativity wash over you. Be still, think clearly, and breath before you respond. And sometimes, you’ll find the best response is to channel the old Genesis song and send “no reply at all.”
A prime example of this is social media. Negativity on social media is rampant. It’s just like those annoying chain-type messages that find their way into your direct messages. Ignore them, and the chain is broken. If someone says something rude to you on social media, be the rock. Ignore them.
In Ryan Holiday’s book Stillness is the Key, he gives probably the best real-world example of how stillness can affect everyone. Holiday cites JFK’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK’s ability to remain calm during one of the most tense-filled moments in history helped to diffuse the situation. By not reacting and giving Khrushchev the time to think about the consequences of war, the world avoided irreversible damage.
Stillness takes patience. Think back on the outcome of a negative situation. Would it have been different if you stole a line from Guns N Roses and showed a little patience? Probably so.
Control plays a role in the ability to be still too. In The Discourses, Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others are not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”
Your response to something is an action that you can control. As Holiday said of JFK during the crisis, he wasn’t concerned about the next step. JFK weighed the next course of action and looked ahead at how that would affect future steps. I took this approach with the above-mentioned email, envisioning the sender’s reaction to my less than pleasant response. I would have received another scathing email. And the cycle would have continued.
I’m not saying it didn’t feel good to dissect the email. It was cathartic to get it out of my system. I’m saying by practicing stillness after the fact I saved a relationship. I realized the person was more concerned that I hadn’t kept them up-to-date with the progress of the project.
Communication is work-in-progress. I am still trying to figure that one out.