Saturday, September 19, 2009

Peak Reaction Time

A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction.

- Rita Mae Brown

I'm trying to get my timing right. You know how sometimes you think of "the perfect comeback" only like three hours later? Or, you say the absolute wrong thing because you just can't stop yourself because you're mad? That's what I'm talking about - what is the peak reaction time - time enough to think of the right thing to say and timely enough to have the right impact.

I grew up in a large and chaotic family (6 kids in a 10 year span). If we wanted something, we had to grab it and shove the others out of the way. We played together and fought together - sometimes at the same time. My mother had to resort to locking us out of the house for a couple of hours at a time in the summers. I think she probably did that to keep from going crazy. The point is - I learned to speak out and do it quickly. This has turned out to be a good thing and a bad thing in my life.

It is a good thing because I usually don't have any problem saying how I feel or what I think. I especially don't have a problem when I think someone else is being abused or treated poorly. Big surprise I ended up being a social worker who advocates for and works with abused people. I have testified in court lots of times at bond hearings. I am not shy about making my point and giving the judge all the reasons why I think we need to have a high bond or no bond. Recently, there was an incident near the elevators in my building. Someone to our office and told us a man had just assaulted his girlfriend. I went out there and stepped past everyone and told this crying woman who was hunkered down in a little ball to come with me. At the same time, I told the boyfriend to "get back." He did and she came with me. I can do the "take charge in a crisis" thing.

But, here's the part I am working on - the flip side that I open my mouth and say what may be the brutal, honest truth but wasn't the right thing to say. My good friend and experienced social worker, J, tells me she's working on the same thing - that reactionary response. When I think about it, probably the responses that are wrong are more to do with my ego. Sometimes it feels good to make that snappy, clever zinger. And - sometimes it does more harm in the long run.
I do a lot of training - mostly police officers - and I have learned not to react when someone makes a comment I think is just plain wrong. This has taken A LOT of practice. But, I have found that if I don't respond with my first thought (often - WTH?!) but I say something like, "Lets talk about that." or "What do others in the class think about that?" If the comment is really off the hook, usually other people in the class will call out the person. Or, we can explore that concept without shaming that person and maybe, just maybe, I can change his or her mind.
Good therapists know about the power of silence. That's the time when our clients are talking about something and we want to jump in and talk - but we don't. We wait. Or, we say something like, "Can you tell me more about that?" Sometimes we have to simply reflect back - "That sounds like it was hard." Social workers learn about working with clients from a Strengths Perspective - that's when we point out the good things people did - "It sounds even though that was a difficult situation, you handled it well."

Taking a breath in between hearing information and responding also helps. That 5 second delay can make the difference between a harmful response and a helpful one.
And - the big trap these days - electronic communication. It is so easy to just tap-tap-tap out that clever response and hit "send." But, there it is - our responses in writing FOREVER. It is hard to take that back....what I really meant to say was....yeah - what I really meant to say is pretty clear - there in black and white. Ouch.


sarahflorida said...

good points...things i will definitely consider in my own practice experiences.

CJ Social Worker said...

Thanks, mswsarah.

I was REALLY thinking about this today. I've been using the breathing thing - when I feel myself getting too rushed - I try to force myself to take a breath (not loud so people would think I'm a freak or anything) but just ONE breath before I respond. Seems to be working ok... :-)

Anonymous said...

So very true...I work in a setting where time can be short and it is easy to try to rush's always good to remember that there is always time to pause.