“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

This quote hit me right between the eyes today.

I’ve been reading a lot of Viktor Frankl over the past few days and this quote stood out as one of my favourites so I stashed it away to mull over later. Then today, while I was working, I caught myself reacting abruptly and impulsively to a text message that rubbed me the wrong way. The message was fine. I was stressed out with the workload in front of me, the crying baby in the coffeeshop I was working in, a knee injury, and just being tired and cranky. My response was sent before I’d thought about it and it wasn’t the best one I could have chosen - I realised that almost immediately after I hit send. Damn!

I’m not beating myself up about it - no real harm was done. But this scenario really crystallised this quote in my mind, and all at once I realised the benefits I’ve missed out on, and the problems I’ve caused myself by reacting on autopilot, nervous energy and impulse for the past few months.

We each have a tremendous amount of power available to us to control how we respond to and interact in our environment, and it comes from controlling space. “Between stimulus and response there is a space”. By making that mental space larger, by a couple of seconds, or even a few days, and taking some time to absorb the situation, we give ourselves so much more room to choose how we want to react and even when we want to react.

Here are a few reasons to create more space between stimuli and your responses:

More time to choose a better response

The most obvious reason. Everyone, regardless of how quick-witted or slow they are, can benefit from having more time to absorb a situation before making a decision. When faced with a situation (stimulus) our very first reaction is always either an emotional or habitual one. That nanosecond hair-trigger response from our lizard brain is where so much of our behaviour begins. Whether it’s anger, jealousy, greed, or just plain old crankiness, when faced with modern-day stressors our initial, basal impulses are not generally the best things to react on.

By taking a little time to distance yourself from a situation, even just a few seconds, you give yourself a chance for your emotional reaction to dissipate and for your higher brain to catch up on what’s happened.

You’ll seem more in control (because you are)

This is a trick my business partner and mentor taught me years ago when talking to clients and prospects: the Pregnant Pause.

Usually, when we’re asked a question, especially in a stressful situation like an interview or sales meeting, we want to respond as quickly as possible. But taking a short pause for a second or two can not only be a great way to buy you more thinking time, it also makes you seem more collected and in control to whomever you’re talking to.

Your answer will be more thought out and seem more deliberate as they can see you’ve really taken the time to mull over what was said. You can become more mindful of your reactions

By applying some mindfulness techniques and reflecting on your reactions, you can also learn a great deal about their origins. There is always a reason that you react the way you do.

Whether it’s fear of losing control, a past betrayal, critical parents, an abusive spouse, or just having to put up with a situation we really didn’t like, we all carry around learned responses to certain types of triggers. (Everyone has baggage, even you). By taking a moment to be mindful of how we’re reacting in a given situation, we can start to dissect why we’re reacting that way.

From this more objective and distanced viewpoint, we can start to decide on better ways to react in future.

You can discover another, better response

Nothing! Sometimes the best response is no response at all. The best reaction is no reaction. So many of the things we say and do were unnecessary and have only contributed to more stress or hurt. The last word in an argument; The hurtful name thrown in to add injury; Unnecessarily digging up the past; Taking that last cookie. In many situations you also have the option to not act at all. To absorb, and then to simply do nothing.

You act less out of habit

When you start to incorporate this principle into your daily life, even if it’s just to one thing per day, you’ll start to realise just how much of our behaviour is habitual. For me, checking my phone or Facebook mindlessly is still an issue. Now, when I catch myself - I can pause and ask: “Do I really need to be checking this now?”. The answer is almost always “no”.

Once we’re aware of our habits, we can decide to take more control over them, and create new, better habits.

Try it out! The next time you feel yourself reacting to a stressful, emotional or even a pleasant or interesting stimulus, take a little more time to create space. Absorb the situation, think about how you’d like to react and do so.