Reaction v Response

After surviving Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl famously talked about the gap between stimulus and response. What he called “the last of the freedoms” is our ability to choose our response to any given situation.

I recently came across a variation of this idea in an interview with Harvard professor Sheila Heen, an expert on communication and negotiation. She spoke about how the key to managing difficult conversations is understanding that our reaction to what is being said does not necessarily have to dictate our response.

When someone criticises us, or accuses us in some way, our first reaction is very often to defend ourselves – to point out details they may not be aware of, or attempt to justify our actions somehow.

Unfortunately, this almost never works.

Heen says that a better solution is to try and listen – to get curious, and ask ourselves ‘What is it that I’m missing here?’ If you can listen, and understand the other person’s viewpoint, you may still think you are right – but at least you can now see where the disagreement has come from.

Like many other communication skills, this is much easier said than done – but Heen reminds us that the point at which we least want to listen is usually the place where we have the most to gain by listening.

The good news is that this is a skill like any other – practice it, and we can all improve.