A family member makes an inflammatory political comment at a family gathering. A co-worker makes a snarky comment about another of your colleagues. The person behind you in the checkout line makes a “funny” comment about the chocolate and potato chips in your basket relative to your weight. What do you do?
These are baited hooks. The speakers are fishing for attention, trying to get a rise out of you. And it’s often easy for them to be successful. We initially perceive these kinds of provocative comments as threats, activating the same fight or flight reactions that saved our distant ancestors from being a leopard’s lunch. We may fire up an argument with the speaker, to convince them that their opinion is wrong and they are a jerk for voicing it – always a losing proposition. Or we may make a non-committal sound, a false laugh, and then try to get away from them as soon as possible. These reactions are automatic, we usually start to do them without consciously thinking.
Such encounters often leave us feeling rattled and derailed. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes we carry the incident with us for hours or even days, replaying it in our minds, wishing we’d made some brilliant put-down, ignored them completely, or calmly expressed that we felt the comment was inappropriate. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have done that?
Often, though, we do get hooked. We let the person trolling for a reaction catch our attention and provoke an angry response. Or we let the offending person, the bully, get away with making hurtful comments to us or others. And then we feel bad about it later.
So, what can we do, especially if our threat reaction is triggered? That threat reaction, after all, is automatic and quicker than our conscious thought. But there are ways to train ourselves to insert a short space between the stimulus of the comment and our response. That little pause gives our conscious mind time to catch up with the situation and decide what we should do.
We then have time to quickly consider such questions as: Do we want to be having an argument with this person now? Ever? Does the comment require a response in this situation? Would speaking up disrupt an incident of bullying? Would it be physically safe for us to speak up? Will we regret it later if we get into an argument with this person, or if we pretend the comment wasn’t hurtful? And so on.
The best way to train ourselves to put a pause between stimulus and response is to rehearse mentally before we get into such a situation. We can take time now to decide the response we’d feel best about in any of the situations where we often get hooked. And then we can practice those responses ahead of time. Some people even memorize a short script to use, such as “Uncle John, let’s not talk about politics.” and have another topic of conversation ready. Or “My groceries and appearance are not your concern. Please keep your comments to yourself.” and practice turning away from the person.
Regardless of how we respond to baited hooks, we can learn from each reaction. And then let it go. It is not helpful to anyone if we continually berate ourselves for not responding perfectly every time. Bottom line: is our relationship with this person worth any more of our time and attention stewing over it?
We may not be able to avoid an emotional reaction inside ourselves, but can learn to choose our outward response. That will help us get along better, as well as helping us feel better.