Over the years, we have developed deeply ingrained habits of how we react to things. These habits are often formed in childhood and may not be useful to us as adults. The following diagram shows how a habit plays out. We react to a trigger in the environment (or sometimes within ourselves) without thinking. Our impulses take over and the behavior just happens.
For example, if you were taught as a child to appreciate praise, your reaction to someone praising you might be “thank you.” If you were taught to be humble, you might automatically blurt out “you’re too kind.” If you were taught that you weren’t worthy of praise, you might have a different visceral reaction and say something self-deprecating.
To change an automatic response to a trigger, you need to be aware of your response to it. When you are aware of your response, you can make a choice of how to behave. See the diagram below.
Changing a Habit
To become aware of your responses to triggers, you need to slow things down. It’s like a moment in a TV show when the action freezes and the actor talks directly into the camera about the situation. Once the actor has talked it through, the action continues.
To improve awareness, start with reviewing situations after they have happened. For example, after a meeting, sit down and go over what happened, what the triggers were, how you were feeling in response to them, and how you behaved. Then think about how you would want to behave differently next time and make yourself aware of what the triggers were and the feelings you had in response to them.
For example, if a trigger is your boss taking control of the meeting from you, note that down. Your feeling might be angry and your behavior could be to shut down and stop participating in the meeting. The first step is noticing what the trigger is and what your impulsive reaction is. Then you have a choice.
The next step is to decide on a new behavior that you would like to do in place of the old one. For example, instead of shutting down, you might want to thank your boss for her input and take control of the meeting back. If that’s too much, an interim step could be to ruminate for a moment then pull yourself out of it and get back into the meeting as a participant instead of a leader. (If you could talk to your boss offline about it, that would be even better.)
Knowing what you should have done in hindsight is easy. Doing it in the moment is harder. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to change your behavior instantaneously. It takes time and practice.
The next time you experience that trigger, try to recognize it and put your new behavior into play. More likely, you’ll recognize your behavior to the trigger as you’re doing it and realize you should have done it differently. That’s okay. You’re making progress. Keep it up and you’ll eventually become aware as the trigger occurs, giving yourself that brief moment necessary to make a conscious choice on how you will behave in response.
As an interim step, don’t forget that it’s okay to go back, to redo, to stop things and say you want to do it differently. For example, when the boss takes over the meeting and you shut down, you could become aware of your behavior then stop your boss and say, “I’d really like to lead the next piece if you don’t mind.” If you had said something negative in your impulsive response, you could stop and say: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. What I mean to say is…” People are often very forgiving when you admit you made a mistake.
You’ll know you’ve successfully changed your habit when you see yourself behaving in the new way automatically.
This post was inspired by Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers.