Are there some people in your life that just push your buttons constantly? If not, then you are probably a Zen meditation master and should put your application in to work with the Dalai Lama. But if you are among the earthly creatures, then you know exactly what I am talking about. You probably get all worked up just thinking about these people, and every time you have an encounter with them – no matter how small – you come away frustrated and seething – maybe even for hours.
It’s easy to think that these people are wreaking havoc on your life and if only they would change, your life would be a much happier one. How is that thinking working out for you? If we are honest with ourselves, we really hold no rational belief that the button-pusher is going to change in any significant way. That is why we always steel ourselves up when we see them coming, when their phone number pops on our caller ID or when we get an email from them. We know how they are. And every time they show up and act like themselves, we feel the same aggravation.
The pattern I just described happens over and over again because we let the emotional part of our brain run the show in encounters with the BPs. We don’t actually choose to get all worked up, it’s just happens. That frustrating person is just like a saber-toothed tiger on the Savannah. You react to them as you would a predator. You either become defensive when you talk to them (fight) or you try to avoid them (flight).
Now you can live your entire life getting frustrated by the same thing over and over again and hiding around corners to avoid these people or you can stop reacting and start choosing how to respond. And that is the basis of the book by Peter Bregman, Four Seconds.
According to Bregman, four seconds is all it takes to deactivate your emotional knee-jerk reaction and choose a better response – to create a space between stimulus (the button pusher) and response. It’s the time it takes to take one full breath.
Notice that it is a response in this case – not a reaction. According to Merriam-Webster, to respond is simply to say something in return. To react is to exert a reciprocal or counteracting force of influence. A response can be a reaction, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s wide open. You get to choose it.
But to be able to choose in the first place, you have to shut down the emotional knee-jerk reaction part of you. How do you do that?
Moderate your Expectations. Don’t expect the button pusher to behave any differently. Don’t think you can change the button pusher. Accepting that the button pusher is going to behave in a certain way each and every time can actually be liberating.
Empathize with the Button Pusher. You must now think I am insane if I am suggesting that you empathize with the most annoying person on the planet. But hear me out. If you are going to conquer the button-pushers’s hold over you (and that is actually what is going on – the button pusher holds the power of frustration over you), then you need to understand where they are coming from. Bob is being a total jerk and super rude to me, but he’s under a lot of pressure and doesn’t know how to handle it better. Susie is going to retire in a year and has different priorities. Flora works down in the basement, never sees the light of day and has been in the same job for 30 years. Every single button pusher on the planet has a back story, and it benefits you to find out what it is.
Practice Meditation. You’ve probably been having knee-jerk reactions your whole life, so you can’t expect that you are going to eliminate them over night. You need to retrain yourself to pause before you respond instead of reacting right away. One of the best ways to do that is to practice meditation, which is all about resisting urges. Meditation requires you to sit still for a pre-determined length of time – say 20 minutes – and to focus on your breath. This is really hard to do because invariably you will have an itch here, an itch there, to-do list items will flood in to your mind that you will want to write down before you forget them. But when you are meditating you can’t do any of that. You have to sit there and resist the urge. And resisting urges is the first step in reducing your tendency to react rather than respond to a person or situation.
Just listen. When you find yourself in an encounter with the button pusher, make it your goal to listen as much as possible and say as little as possible. I would encourage you to practice this skill often and in other situations that don’t involve the button pusher to get really good at it. Listening gives you space to engage your rational thought processes instead of reacting, and it removes the possibility of the situation escalating when your reaction to the button pusher further provokes them.
Becoming a person who has no buttons to push is a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight. When you first start practicing these skills, as with any skills, you will not be good at them. At first, you will not realize that your buttons have been pushed and you will react as you usually do. Over time, you will realize that your buttons have been pushed, maybe you will even pause, but you will still react as you usually do. Do not despair during this stage, tell yourself that it’s useless and give up. Keep at it, and slowly you will start to notice that here and there, you’ve got it. You’ve shut down that knee jerk reaction and replaced it with something that works better for both the button pusher and you. And the more often you practice that skill, the better you will get at it until you reach the point where you’re never bothered again by the BPs.
Then you can consider that job offer from the Dalai Lama.