Building the Gap Between Stimulus and Response


Have you ever watched the television show Baggage?  If you have, you know that three contestants go on the show to find love, but must reveal three forms of “baggage” from their past.  It is not uncommon for participants to report baggage such as, “I spent a year in prison” or “I sleep with six cats every night.”  The contestant then must decide if he or she can understand the past baggage and turn the participant into a future relationship.  The examples on the show are typically pretty extreme, but we all have some level of baggage.

The show Baggage is an example of stimulus and response.  Revealing the past baggage is the stimulus.  The response is given from both the participant and the crowd watching.  The response is always given immediately after hearing the past baggage.  This is also common in our own relationships.  We tend to jump to a response, sometimes without receiving honest clarification and reasoning. We often will forget to listen once we have heard something that we object to, we start justifying, reasoning and otherwise responding or thinking of our responses.

When conflict arises in our lives it is difficult to put it in the past and leave it there.  Even when we believe we have overcome the issue it may come up again in the future.  What do you think about this example of baggage, or as Gary Brainard calls it, a bruise.

So lets say my spouse comes into a busy noisy room and sees me there.  He is trying to get my attention and fails, so he comes behind me and taps me on the shoulder.  I jump up “owww that hurt!” “What did you do that for?”  He is surprised about my reaction and is defensive about his intentions.  I show him an old deep purple, visibly sore bruise on the exact spot where he tapped my shoulder.  In light of that bruise, it makes sense to him and to me why it hurts so much.

90% of that hurt came from a past wound, just like 90% of reactivity comes from the old emotional wounds.  10% is really happening now.  You are causing the pain now, I feel pain now, however if you would have chosen the other shoulder the pain would have been totally different.

An important part of conflict management is learning how to slow down the impulsive, immediate reactions to create better space between stimulus (tap, tap) and response (“what did you do that for?”)  Instead of jumping right to the response, if we can create a cushion, or a time for a relaxing breath, our response will not be so extreme.  By taking this short pause, we allow our brain to organize and accept that some or much of the pain now is related to an older wound.

When we are faced with challenges in our life whether they are new issues, or old ones that have yet to be resolved, it is important to communicate and not play games.  A common game used during conflict is (emotionally) pushing your spouse away to draw them closer.  This technique sounds completely backwards, that’s because it is!  Our responses to pain or frustration can directly work against our goals of the interaction. This way of coping literally gets in the way of getting our emotional needs met.

Along with communication being an important tool when conflicts arise, curiosity is also essential.  Curiosity offers respect by listening and expanding on thoughts instead of just cutting in with our own responses.  Curiosity increases the space between stimulus and response, it means you are listening rather than judging.  As stated earlier, it creates that cushion of a break, which in turn makes it less likely to feel badly about the interaction later.

When we are in a conflict situation it is important to pay close attention to our body.  When we are in an intense situation we tense up our muscles.  Purposefully releasing the muscles in your body will help slow your reactivity.

If you feel like a hailstorm, sit down and breathe.  Consider their opinion before forming your response.  Count to five before allowing yourself to respond. Also, pay attention to your face. Do you scowl?  You may not notice the signs your body language and facial expressions are giving off, but actively attempt to neutralize and soften them. You want it to feel like you are inviting a conversation, not shooting verbal arrows.

If you feel like turtling up, offer some open body language and work hard to verbally engage.  Understand that what your partner needs is for you to invest in the issue with them for a bit. This will show them that you care about them because they care about the issue.  Be sure you are applying yourself verbally.

Conflict management is certainly not easy.  Everyone enters a relationship with differing forms of baggage or bruises.  Take the conflict as a learning, growing experience.  Each conflict will give insight to who you, and your partner are both as an individual and as a couple.  Do your best to create that pause between the stimulus and response to give you more time to develop a less extreme response, which will later resolve in a positive relational investment.

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