Response flexibility

I am trying to improve my response flexibility.

I came across this phrase last year and it has really stuck in my mind.

Response flexibility is about creating a gap between a trigger and the response to that trigger – allowing you to make a conscious decision about who you respond.

“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.”
– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning 

Without response flexibility you lash out, react, bite someone’s head off, and are impulsive, driven by emotions. You are giving control of your behaviour to your “lizard brain” (the amygdala) where your fight or flight mechanism exists. It intercepts these messages before they can reach your prefrontal cortex – the place in the brain where most of your cognitive abilities exist.

Response flexibility is a skill and one that should be identified, practiced and developed by parents, teachers and especially by managers.

From what I have learned, the key to developing and improving your response flexibility is in mindfulness and learning how to recognise the trigger as it occurs. It’s not something that you can improve in retrospect through guilt and remorse.

Your body has a physical reaction to the triggers that cause your amygdala to get twitchy. The path to response flexibility starts with learning to recognise the physical response to the emotions in involved – tightening of the chest, flush in the face, heart rate pulsing, muscles contracting.

At first, you still won’t be able to control your impulses but once you get good at recognising the physical response, you can learn to insert a pause by simply noticing and “labelling” what is happening in your body. There is no need to understand why someone is pushing your buttons (their motivations) or even why you are responding in this physical way (self rationalisation). You just need to stop and say to yourself something like “I am feeling tense and annoyed by this conversation”. That’s it; just notice what is happening.

Once you get good at noticing what is occurring, learn to pause. As soon as you feel the physical changes in your body, take a couple of breaths. This will allow time for your prefrontal cortex to process the information and get it to bypass your impulsive amygdala. In order to have “response flexibility” you need to be able to think about your response.

I’m not saying that you remove the emotion from how you respond and become a stoic; but developing response flexibility gives you time to make choices. It is a great skill to learn and can lead to far more satisfying personal and professional relationships; I still need more practice however..

2 Comments

  1. As an update to this.. one technique to better understand and improve your Response Flexibility is when the next time you have an itch. Let’s say you are sitting watching tv and you get an itch on your face.. don’t scratch it right away. Just notice that your face has an itch and try to hold on before scratching it for as long as you can. It’s tough.

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