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Changing Habitual Reaction Patterns

Brian walks into the meeting with his team Monday morning determined to not react when Phil, a co-worker, speaks up. During the last two meetings, Brian has expressed his anger and then afterwards felt irritated and complained to another co-worker about how Phil is trying to take the project in the wrong direction. This time, he decides, he will let it be water off a duck’s back.

Nonetheless, the meeting proceeds similar to the previous two; as soon as Phil speaks up, Brian begins to feel his irritation grow, and soon he is in the same pattern as before, heart racing as he makes a few clipped comments saying what he thinks is wrong with Phil’s opinion. He leaves still angry and irritated, but also disappointed in himself for not doing what he had decided earlier.

When this happens, many of us think that it’s some failure within us—perhaps we don’t have the will power, we aren’t “enlightened” enough, or we should be able to control ourselves better. Yet these kinds of changes, where we fundamentally shift a habitual pattern of reaction, are not simple changes to make, nor were most of us taught growing up how to make them. We can learn, however, and below is a guide to the process of creating these behavioral shifts.

Becoming Aware

The first step in making a change is becoming aware of what it is you want to change; if you’re not aware then you’re not aware, and things pass you by with no opportunity to try something different. Early in the process, you might become aware days later, realizing that you experienced a situation that is still causing you pain, and that you want to change how you respond.

We start work from whenever we get this awareness—whether it’s weeks, days, hours, or minutes later. Eventually, through doing the rest of the process repeatedly, we get to the point where we are aware in the moment that we have a choice to do something new.

After Brian’s first meeting, he stayed and angry and unaware, and a few days after the second meeting he saw that he had reacted in a similar way and realized that he was not enjoying the situation with Phil and wanted to do something else. He has shortened the time of his becoming aware, but in the moment during the meeting he still got caught up in what was happening and reacted as usual. He is not yet aware in the moment.

This, as I see it, is one of the most conceptually difficult pieces of the whole process—creating awareness, teaching the mind to spontaneously generate an idea. In order to develop this awareness and teach the mind a new pattern, it is necessary to develop cues, something that reminds you and sparks awareness in that moment. These cues can be bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, or something in the situation itself, such as hearing particular words come out of your mouth or recognizing the pattern of an interaction. The cue alerts you that you are in this situation where you want to be making a different choice.

Brian might notice a particular sensation in his body that alerts him that he is becoming irritated, or he might notice when he begins to move forward in his chair. If there’s a particular thought he thinks when he hears Phil speak, like “Oh boy, here he goes again,” that can be another cue to spark awareness.

Using Awareness to Learn

Once we become aware of a situation where we reacted in a way we aren’t pleased with, regardless of how long afterwards, we reflect back upon what has happened and learn from it. We think about our experience, building the muscles of our metacognition (thinking about our thinking). The key piece of this part of the process is mourning. When you think about what happened and mourn the needs not met, it helps you be clear that you would like those needs to be met.

In reflecting on the meeting, Brian mourns that his needs for harmony and collaboration with his team were not met by his reactions to Phil. He also realizes that he reacts to Phil because he is afraid that if the direction Phil is advocating is chosen, then Brian will be pushed out of the project, which won’t meet his needs for contribution or acknowledgment of his previous work.

Creating Alternatives

When you are aware of the needs not met, you can then strategize how you might meet those needs. When you think about the situation, consider what you would like to have done differently. This gives you a possible alternative behavior to the habitual pattern you automatically react from.

When Brian thinks about what happened in the meetings, he might decide that he would like to first take a few deep breaths as soon as he notices that he is becoming angry and connect with his needs, then express himself. As he practices doing those while thinking about the meeting, even role-playing with another person, he is making those options more likely to occur to him in a similar situation.

Mourning and practicing alternative strategies also prompts an increase in awareness, and by that I mean it prompts awareness earlier in the process. Instead of that forehead-hitting moment being later, you can eventually get to the point where the awareness comes in the moment when you can actually choose. Then we need to have at least one alternative in mind to try; if we only have our usual reaction as a possibility then we will fall into that pattern automatically.

Choosing the Alternative Option

Once we develop awareness in the moment that we would like to do something different and we have at least one alternative option, we will have to choose that option. Numerous times, I have been in an interaction with someone where I realized that I was in this same situation, I knew I had other possible ways I could react, and I chose not to. I’ve even had the thought “I’m going to create a wreck here” and I go ahead and choose my habitual reaction and create a wreck anyway.

In the next meeting, when Brian uses his cues to become aware that he is getting angry, he remembers that he practiced taking deep breaths and connecting with his needs before saying anything, but in that moment he has to make the choice to not go down the same path he’s been before and to choose the new behavior. It helps to have really mourned the needs not met in the habitual choice, because in the moment that habitual choice can feel satisfying. Remembering that it really does not meet our needs helps us overcome that momentary satisfaction to try something that is more satisfying in the long run.

Doing the New Behavior

Finally, you actually do your new behavior, what you had practiced. You may not do it perfectly; it may end up being a combination of new and old behavior, you just do the best you can in that moment. In developing awareness, creating a new option, and choosing that option, you are building capacity; doing the behavior is about having the skills to implement your choice.

Part of this skill is having a new lexicon; we use a different language than what our culture steeps us in, one that has distinctions buried in it that allow us to see things differently. Through coming up with new options and then practicing what we would actually say in the situation, we begin to internalize the lexicon so that it will be available to us in the moment of awareness when we need it. It takes time and practice to be able to implement the choice in the way you would like when in the heat of the moment.

As Brian takes his few deep breaths and connects with himself, he gets in touch with his need to contribute and for harmony and collaboration with his teammates. He then takes one more deep breath, and says what he had practiced; “I’m concerned when I hear you talking about the project that way, Phil, because I would like to have some assurance that the weeks of work we have already put in to this are not being thrown out. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to tell me how you see the link between what we have been working on and what you are proposing?”

Learning Again

After you implement your new behavior, however imperfectly, you can then reflect again on the situation and celebrate what you did and how it met your needs, and mourn any needs not met. Consider whether your strategy felt satisfying or whether you would like to try something else, and if so, what new option you could try. You might also decide that your strategy was ok, but you would like more practice to be able to implement it more fully next time, and find a way to get that practice. Continuing to reflect on how your behavior did or did not meet your needs, strategizing how to meet your needs, and practicing those strategies (preferably with someone else in role-playing scenarios), helps you build the capacity, skills, and lexicon to make new choices in the moment.

Post by Ike Lasater with Julie Stiles

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Comment from Pam Refling
Time March 26, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Ike, thank you for this post that is so timely for me. Next week I am meeting with a client that habitually reacts with her nursing staff in a way that has been very distressing for her. I appreciate the clarity of the process I can coach her through to help her discover she has more choices in her reactions, than she is currently seeing.

Comment from Nil
Time March 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Ike thanks for sharing this process as i see it is not easy and not one time application but it is like a continuous improvement loops to create new behaviour to mee your needs! It worth to try! Thanks…

Comment from Ike Lasater
Time March 29, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Pam: I am pleased you see an immediate use for this. I look forward to leaning how it goes.
Nil: Yes, it is an iterative process. There is no point at which I have found that I can say I am done. There is always the next moment and the next challenge.

Comment from John
Time June 2, 2012 at 6:32 am

The bit I struggle with most is the idea that it is a choice I have to say something different that will better meet my needs. My experience is that the words don’t come, no matter how much I’ve practiced; the emotions just get in the way and the old script of reactionary judgements spews out. Practice is fine, but no two situations are the same and reality never matches practice. I have the awareness; I do the mourning; I create the alternative, but in the ‘eat’ of the moment, the choice doesn’t come. Changing the habits of 50 years is nigh impossible, I find.
Thanks for your important work – I believe it’s really important, however poorly I perform at it.