Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Victor Frankl

I used to be a customer service representative’s nightmare: indignant, self-righteous and impersonal. I rationalized my behavior as I turned human beings into objects. I relented only when someone met my demands and said the equivalent of, “You’re right, we’re wrong.” As embarrassing as all this is to admit, I wish I could say I reserved this behavior only for customer service representatives.

Leaders Know Better

Leaders can be reactive. Reactivity can look aggressive or passive. It can come in the form of loud anger as well as over-thinking, emotional detachment, criticism, controlling, passive-aggressive behavior, or manipulation—to name just a few. We’re human, and we get caught between our instinct to be compassionate and our adapted instincts to control our environment, drive change, and meet our core needs to be safe, competent, connected and affirmed.

Leaders know to pay attention to their behavior, to track what’s working and what’s not. When I get off course and get reactive, I need a map and a compass to redirect my course of travel. The one I (and my clients) use is a centuries-old psycho-spiritual map called the “Enneagram.” The Enneagram is uncanny in how it explains and predicts reactivity patterns across nine personality “types.” My clients use it to enlarge the space between stimulus and response and to hit the ‘pause’ button before wavering further off course.

Waking Up

The antidote to reactivity is self-mastery. When your self-mastery is high, you’re emotionally grounded and make conscious choices even in challenging situations. Self-mastery is not a coping strategy that allows you to ‘stuff’ your anger and judgment. High self-mastery people are authentic and compassionate, have the capacity to express anger and intensity, and are less subject to the distortions that come from poor listening skills.

Self-mastery is vital if you want to be heard, if you want to build or preserve a relationship, or if you want to positively influence someone’s behavior. Anyone can get along with people who think like they do. But professional leaders are expected to have range. It takes self-mastery to connect with a wide range of thinking styles and belief systems.

The Key to Growth and Freedom

Science has confirmed that meditation or mindfulness can significantly change our brain’s neurological ‘grooves’ so we can pause before reacting. Find the form of meditation that works for you and start with 5 minutes a day.

Additionally, the next time you feel emotionally triggered and are about to be reactive, try the Stop, Look, and Drop process to increase your self-mastery:

Stop – When you feel yourself in reactivity mode (hint: If you can’t laugh at yourself or the situation, or if you are convinced you are entirely right and the other is dead wrong, you’re being reactive)—stop talking, take your finger off the send button, and step away from the conversation.

Look – Be self-observant to notice what’s happening when you’re being reactive. Shift your attention from the other person or group and notice what you’re experiencing internally. What are you feeling (anger, hurt, fear, sadness), what’s happening in your body (throat tight, stomach clenched), what are your opinions and judgments (the distortions of what others are saying)?

Drop – Change begins with self-awareness. As you slow things down a bit and let a little time pass, breathe, and move around, then you can drop into self-inquiry mode and ask yourself, “What’s really bothering me? What am I trying to guard against? What need am I trying to meet?” Talk with a friend, colleague, or coach to help you recognize your motivators and uncover the root causes of your reactivity.

As you increase your self-awareness, you’ll more quickly notice your reactivity (and reduce defensiveness, denial, or rationalizing your behavior)—and you’ll find that you simply cycle through it. Self-awareness is the key to true freedom. When you have a conscious choice, you’re no longer a slave to the personality traits that long ago became unconscious habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Consider your reactivity a gift, an invitation to break out of the inherent limitations of old, unconscious beliefs that drive your behavior. Awareness of your reactivity can lead you into a much bigger way of living and much more effective way to relate and lead.

Now when I press or say, “Representative” and I hear a live voice, what I hear is a person, someone who’s trying to make a living, provide service, and be helpful… someone who is not that different from me. Could it be that I am attracting more positive, supportive, empathetic representatives? Maybe I was the problem all along. If the point of leading is to get the best from others self-mastery does just that.