Moving from reaction to response to reflection
One of the hall marks of emotional intelligence is the ability to respond to a situation, rather than react to it. We are at our basest when we react to external situations or events, allowing those experiences to control our behavior. Through the development of self-awareness, we move away from this external orientation toward one that is more interior in nature. As this happens, we become more and more cognizant of our thoughts and feelings, giving us increasing access to our interior landscape.
When we react, we are literally being hijacked by our emotions, or, more to the point, overwhelmed by a physio-emotional response driven by a brain structure called the amygdala. The amygdalae (pl.) are two almond shaped nuclei—a cluster of densely packed neurons—located medially in the temporal lobes of the brain. It is one of the more thoroughly understood regions of the brain, particularly with regard to gender differences. Research shows it to be integral to memory, decision-making and, most importantly for this conversation, emotional reactions.
As we mature, moving away from a purely exterior orientation to one that is more interior and balanced, we begin to lay the foundation of emotional regulation. That’s not to say we can’t fall back into reacting to external stimuli. When we do, however, we are more likely to be aware of what’s going on for us, rather than just having a tantrum in the face of not getting our needs or expectations met.
This self-awareness leads us to other-awareness. In other words, we begin to develop sympathy in its truest sense—a commonality of feeling—with others. With this in hand, we are open to developing empathy, where we are not simply sharing feelings with others, but understanding their experience. The resonance created by this understanding and attendant empathy is at the heart of moving from reacting to responding.
When we are in this matrix of sympathy, empathy and understanding, we are not only with our own feelings, but with the feelings of another person. When that connection extends beyond a single person to a group or the larger community, we move out of the egocentricity of empathy and into the ethno- and geo-centricity of compassion. Exercising compassion demands that we stay inside. By staying inside, and not letting ourselves get pulled off center by the situations or events outside us, we move into an even more subtle level of emotional intelligence—from responding to reflecting.
Exercising compassion means holding space. Reflection, on the other hand, is about holding the space. The subtle difference here is that holding space, from the perspective of Buddhist psychology, is about accepting and allowing for the experience of another person—being with it and being with them. Holding the space, by contrast, means holding the container of experience and staying centered in it so the accepting and allowing of compassion can happen. The former—holding space—is an expression of witnessing the emotional experience of an individual or community. The latter—holding the space—extends beyond witnessing into active participation. Reflection transforms compassionate understanding into an act of authentic tenderness and humanity that raises not only our own level of emotional intelligence, but weaves that ethos into the larger fabric of society, hopefully for the greater good.