I am delighted to welcome Aboodi Shabi as a guest on my blog this month. In his article here, Aboodi helps us to recognise how our automatic responses developed over years of habit may no longer serve us in being able to adapt to some of the challenges we are faced with. Aboodi suggests some practical ways of how we can recognise and develop new responses to help us be more effective.
”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.” – Victor Frankl
Like anyone else working in the world of human development and learning, I regularly take the time to refresh myself with workshops and courses. I’ve been especially lucky to have studied with some great teachers, including Richard Strozzi Heckler, the somatic coaching master, and founder of Strozzi Institute, from whom I have learned a huge amount.
One of the most significant things I’ve learned from him has been the notion of conditioned tendencies*, the patterns of reacting to the external world that we all have, developed from a very early age, and which become ingrained and automatic to us. These reactions are primarily embodied, but we will also experience them as thoughts and emotions.
In many ways, these tendencies serve us well – they help us to deal with stressful situations or with interruptions or threats in our daily lives. However, because they have become automatic through years of habit, they tend to have us, and we become at the effect of, rather than in control of, them.
Like anything else that’s automatic, we have little choice about how we respond to situations when we react from our conditioned tendency. To live more effectively, and to build mastery in our daily lives, we need to be more than just our automatic selves. We need to build a range of responses, and more critically, we need to be able to discern the appropriate path in any situation. That requires space and awareness.
If we are to build range, and to develop the capacity for greater choice about how we deal with the challenges of life, then we need to get to know how we automatically react to the things that trigger us – we need to have some skill at observing ourselves, or ask the advice of others as to what they see in us. For example, a coach might point out that whenever you speak about your boss you lean forward in your chair, your breathing becomes shallower and your neck muscles tighten. Those somatic changes will impact how you interact with your boss – for example, they might be a sign of tension that shows up in your not standing up for yourself, or feeling resentful in your relationship with her. Or you might notice that when you are asked to do something you don’t want to do, you freeze. That might be related to a need to be liked, or a fear of having to stand up for yourself, resulting in an inability to say ‘no’ leading to over-commitment or exhaustion. This isn’t about how we would like to react, nor about how we respond when we are centred and balanced, but about what happens when we are caught off-guard and the automatic self is in charge.
This isn’t about judging ourselves – our reactions aren’t good or bad, they are just what we have learned – but about building the capacity to be less automatic, and developing the ability to respond differently. For instance, one of my conditioned tendencies is to react very quickly to things: my breathing becomes shallow, my shoulders rise and my head moves forwards and up, and my body tightens as if I become super-alert and feel as if I “have” to deal immediately with whatever has triggered me. One way it shows up for me is that I reply very fast (sometimes too fast!) to emails and text messages. Through practice, I am learning to take a moment to breathe more deeply, relax my shoulders, and then reflect on whether I need to respond immediately or whether, as is usually the case, I can take my time, or just get on with whatever else I was doing.
Take the time to notice and discover your own automatic, conditioned, reactions. Life is full of triggers so it shouldn’t be too hard to do some research here – how do you react, for example, when someone pushes in front of you in a super-market queue or in traffic? How do you react when your boss challenges you, or when your partner disagrees with you?
And then, as you begin to discover your conditioned tendencies, you might start to practice bringing more awareness to your everyday life. Training the attention, the theme of my previous newsletter, is a big part of this. You can begin to notice how you get triggered in stressful situations, and try to catch yourself reacting in the moment.
The next stage is to practice building new responses. For instance, returning to the example of your reaction to your boss above, you might notice your reactions to her earlier than before, and sit back in your chair, breathe deeply and relax your neck muscles – what new behaviour might this lead to? What new outcomes might follow?
From my years of experience of working with people, I know that the body is a very powerful place of learning. We can only benefit by becoming more conscious of our own bodies and their automatic reactions, and learning, through awareness and practice, how to show up differently in life.
*You can watch Richard Strozzi Heckler explaining conditioned tendencies, and their impact, here.
Aboodi Shabi has been a pioneer and leader in the UK and European Coaching community since 1997. He was a founding co-President of the UK ICF, serving the profession at all levels internationally. He has worked with thousands of coaches and leaders across the world.