It’s Difficult Not To Bite Back – How To Keep ComposureDecember 26, 2015
Say that a colleague who you’ve had some difficulties with launches a snippy comment at you in the middle of a meeting. It may have been a subtle slight — not an out-and-out tirade — but in an insular environment like an office (or in an even more insular environment, like a meeting), one snippy comment can reverberate like a squash ball launched into a snow-globe shop.
When you’re bitten like this, it’s difficult not to bite back. There’s no shame in wanting to. There is always a moment, however, when a gap appears between what we want to say and what we know is the better thing to say (which, in many cases, may be nothing at all). Finding that gap — and making a choice other than biting back — takes mindfulness.
You’ve probably seen stock images of impeccably dressed business people meditating on top of their desks, expressions of preternatural bliss plastered across their faces. Forget about those. Mindfulness is not some rarefied way of being that requires you to turn your entire way of life upside down (or, for that matter, engage in behaviors that might make your colleagues think you’ve gone off the deep end). Mindfulness is the quality of a mind that is awake and aware — and that knows it. Moreover, it is a habit that anyone can learn. This makes it exquisitely portable and suitable for deployment in any situation in which having more options would be helpful.
In those moments when you’re caught up in a tense situation, your head can feel loud, hot, and confused, like a crowd gathered around a crime scene on the street. The “crime” — the snippy comment your colleague made — is the major source of the tension, but there are also dozens of little tensions surrounding it, ones that may have nothing to do with the perceived hurt. These could include the muscle you pulled while working out, a breakout of lice at your kid’s school, or your suspicion that the mechanic is going to tell you the catalytic converter in your car just conked out and needs to be replaced. The more you try to move this loud group of “bystander” tensions along — “Nothing to see here!” — the less likely they are to actually want to disperse.
But thanks to every crime show that’s ever been on TV, we know what to do in this situation: question the bystanders one by one. Separate the thoughts, feelings, and emotions buzzing around your mind, so they lose the ability to gang up on you. Bring kind, gentle awareness to their needs. Let them say their piece in order to discharge the frenzied energies they bring to the larger situation.
When we’ve let the bystander tensions have their say, we get a better look at the crime we believe took place. When we do so, sometimes we’ll discover that there isn’t even a body — just a chalk outline, the memory of a crime. Once you see your colleague’s snippy comment for what it was, free of any other tensions, it may lose the impact it had when it was delivered.
Here is where you gain the ability to really take control. The control you have might not be the control you thought you wanted — for example, vanquishing your foe with a well-timed comeback — but it is the control you have the capacity to do something useful with. It is the control to guide the fire of tension. You may not have the option of completely stamping out its flames, but you do have the option of choosing not to feed them. If you do feed them, the fire may gain the upper hand, and any control you might have had will be gone. If you allow the flames to die down, you buy back the time and energy you would have had to spend later in dealing with a fire that had continued to burn unabated.
Such simple acts of skillful generosity help you develop a greater sense of confidence in your abilities. The more you practice, the easier it becomes, eventually becoming your default mode of response.
If you want to gain more control over your reactions to stressful situations, the best way to do so is to begin a formal meditation practice. This doesn’t have to be something disruptive to your life — you can try meditating for three minutes a day, three days a week, and see whether you like it. See what you notice. How are you engaging with and relating to your life? This is what lies at the heart of what this practice has to offer: a saner, kinder, more skillful way of engaging, for your own sake and for the sake of your teammates.
Author credit :
Jonathan Roberts is Operations Manager of Mindfulness Based Learning at Harvard Pilgrim. He manages communications for Mind the Moment as well as overseeing its diverse pool of instructors, and has helped bring its spectrum of offerings to organizations in fields including health care, higher education, tech, and financial services.
Tara Healey is Program Director of Mindfulness Based Learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and founder of Mind the Moment, the mindfulness training arm of Harvard Pilgrim. Since 2005, Mind the Moment has delivered its programs to over 150 corporate clients, reaching 10,000 people in the process