Don’t React, Respond: How to Better Control Your Emotion

Melvin Tillman, Melvin Tillman, MA

Posted by: Melvin Tillman
Melvin Tillman, MA
267-428-2612

Have you been in a conversation or a situation where someone has said something that’s triggered you to react?  Maybe you’ve become angry, or frustrated, or sad?  And once you feel this emotion, you say the first thing that comes to mind?  Or allow the emotion to take over your reaction, causing you to cry or yell?  Although allowing yourself to express your emotions is important, it is even more important be aware of your emotion and in control of them, rather than allowing your emotion to control you. 

Instead of reacting, respond.  As you become aware of the emotional reaction you are experiencing, take a few moments to pause.  Reflect on how you are feeling, and what you are thinking.  Is what you’re thinking appropriate for the situation, or will these thoughts or emotions only fuel a potential argument or upset the other person?   It’s important to consider your ultimate goal: are you trying to convey a certain message?  Are you trying to truly be heard by the other person?  Or are you trying to ultimately just stay calm?  Consider what you would say that could help achieve your goal; rather than taking you further away from a resolution.

For example, if the person you are talking to says something that activates you to feel insulted, disappointed, or angered, you can take a few moments to pause and reflect.  Practicing deep breathing in this moment may aid in calming your nervous system and lower your emotional activation, which will decrease the likelihood of impulsivity and increase logic.  While deep breathing, focus on breathing deep into your diaphragm (belly) rather than your lungs.  Ask yourself, “Is this person purposefully trying to hurt me, or is this a simple miscommunication or mis-understanding?”  After doing this, ask yourself what your goal is in this conversation.  If your goal is not to fight, it is important to respond in a way that is neutral and respectful, rather than saying something that is equally insulting or frustrating to that person.  If you allow your hurt or angered emotions to guide your reaction, this will only further the growth and strength of this emotion, not only within you, but also within the person you are communicating with. 

Another example may be when you are trying to explain to a friend that you are disappointed or hurt due to cancellation of plans.  They may respond in a way that is more hurtful, justifying their actions rather than acknowledging your feelings.  Rather than allowing your hurt and sadness to dictate your reaction, causing you to cry and possibly walk away, it will be more valuable to assess the message you are trying to convey to your friend about how hurt you are.  Using “I statements” here can help express your emotion and thoughts in a neutral manner.  By doing this, rather than becoming emotional, your friend is more likely to hear what you are saying.  An I statement is constructed as so: I feel (emotion) when you (action) because _________.  Along with using I statements, you can also ask the person for him/her to summarize what you shared, along with their feedback.  It can be important to hear each other’s perspectives, but only when in a calmer state of mind, in order to avoid either person becoming defensive.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to take a pause to reflect, it may be best to excuse yourself momentarily in order to gather your thoughts alone.  By doing so, you remove the pressure of the situation or person(s) upon your reaction, while giving yourself time to breathe, vent, cry, or call someone in order to gain clarity.  Once you feel more centered and focused, you can re-engage with the situation or person, having your ultimate goal or objective in mind, allowing your responses to guide you there.  

Controlling your emotions in many different situations or conversations can be learned through becoming more aware of your reaction and ultimate goals of the outcome.  Being able to assess the situation with a clear mind, rather than allowing your emotion to control your reaction, will help you communicate effectively and clearly.