Have you ever had an experience at work where someone says something that just makes you irate? You might not outwardly show just quite how angry you are. But inside, you’re just fuming.
In fact, you’re so angry that you replay the conversation in your head the whole way home. The minute you walk in the door, you’re complaining about it to anyone who will listen. Everything you didn’t think to say, or didn’t dare say in the moment stays with you for hours. Or even worse, for days.
Reactive communication isn’t just about yelling and screaming at one another. We can appear to be calm outwardly and still be in a reactive state.
Reactive communication is about what’s going on inside of your body before, while and after you’re communicating.
One of the best ways to manage difficult conversations well and to resolve conflict productively is to ensure that you’re not in the Reactive Zone of Communication while interacting with others.
How do you know if you’re in the Reactive Communication Zone at work?
Last winter, I was giving a training downtown. The night before, I made sure to leave myself more than enough time to get there. I checked the weather to make sure there would be no snow to slow me down. I checked the average drive time and doubled it to make sure I wouldn’t be late.
And, of course, the next morning, I woke up to a huge snowstorm that hadn’t been forecasted.
I ended up being 10 minutes late. Not to the training, thank goodness. But I was late to meet the person who was greeting me in the lobby. Not bad, given the snowstorm and huge traffic jam it had caused. But it was enough that I was feeling stressed about walking into that training late.
I was in such a rush that I momentarily left my mini suitcase of materials in the car and had to run back to grab it.
You know those mornings, right…?
My heart was racing, my palms were sweating and I ran-walked through the huge parking lot to the hotel at top speed.
I was in the Reactive Zone of Communication, even though I had yet to interact with a single person.
In the Reactive Zone of Communication, our nervous system is in a heightened state of arousal. Our emotions tend to be heightened. We may be more easily excitable, extra giddy or more easily angered. This influences how we feel within our bodies and how we interact with others. We might end up listening less, being more demanding or more conflictual.
For some people, the Reactive Zone of Communication may outwardly present itself very differently. These people may be internally experiencing the body cues that tell them that they’re in the Reactive Communication Zone (racing heart, sweaty palms, etc.), but outwardly, they present to the world as if nothing has happened. The reality is that they’re experiencing similar circumstances, but they process it differently.
This can evolve to a point where people no longer even recognize their body cues. So much so that their emotional reactions may become dampened. Almost flat. They may seem to go unphased by anything that happens. People who react in this manner may tend to withdraw from communication, particularly during situations that are emotionally charged. They themselves may not even truly recognize when they’re upset by something.
Where do you sit?
The above are all examples of being in the Reactive Zone of Communication. It just presents itself differently in different individuals. Which description best describes you?
Most people have a tendency to weave in and out of the Reactive Zone of Communication to varying extents throughout the day. Some people spend more time here overall in their day than others. Some move in and out of this zone more frequently. Some people have a tendency to get stuck in it for longer periods.
And let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing big emotions. We’re human and that’s normal. But where it can get tricky is when we’re either slipping into the Reactive Zone so frequently that it becomes disruptive to our day or when we get stuck there and have a hard time finding our way out.
So how do I find the Receptive Zone of Communication?
The Receptive Zone of Communication is a state where experience more calm, and are generally able to be more focused and attentive. We’re better able to productively engage in discussions with people who have opinions that are different than our own and make fewer decisions that we might regret down the road. But how do we get there?
1. Learn to recognize your body cues
The first step to help you get out of the Reactive Zone of Communication and back into the Receptive Zone of Communication is to notice that you’ve actually slipped into the Reactive Zone. Start paying attention to what your body feels like in the moment. For instance, learn to recognize the tension you might feel in your jaw or your neck as you’re in the midst of challenging conversations as a sign that you’re in the Reactive Zone.
The better you come at recognizing the differences in your body when you’re in a calm versus emotionally heightened state, the better you will become at navigating difficult conversations.
2. Notice what happens right before you enter the Reactive Zone of Communication
Start identifying patterns that leave you feeling reactive. What may put you into the Reactive Zone of Communication may be very different from what impacts a colleague. What happened right before you were feeling out of sorts? Start looking for cues as to what types of communication patterns and personality styles end up being more difficult for you to deal with in a receptive state.
3. Practice the pause
As soon as you notice that you’re slipping into the Reactive Zone of Communication, you can interrupt this pattern by choosing to practice the pause. This is most effective when done as soon as you notice yourself feeling slightly reactive, rather than waiting until your emotions have escalated to a peak.
The pause simply means taking a moment to connect back to yourself. How exactly you choose to do this is up to you. Choosing to simply sit down and listen to some quiet, calming music for a few minutes, or even just closing your eyes to take a few deep breaths can be highly effective. Do whatever you know will calm your own body.
Once you know which types of situations tend to put you into the Reactive Zone of Communication, you can start choosing to practice the pause before even entering that situation. For instance, if you know that speaking in front of the Board is nerve-wracking for you, you can practice the pause beforehand. If you’re having to address performance issues with one of your strong-headed team members and are dreading it, practicing the pause can help you to show up in that meeting in a better way.
On the day that I was late for my training, I obviously didn’t have time to sit in the car for 5 minutes before heading into the hotel. So I simply kept reminding myself to practice the pause whenever I had a minute or two to myself. For instance, I took a few deep breaths while in the elevator and again while in the training room, waiting for the manager to arrive. I made sure that by the time I was with my client, my nervous system was in a calmer state.
Focusing on bringing myself back to the Receptive Zone of Communication helped to ensure that I could truly listen to my clients and connect with them. It set me up to be able to successfully navigate the communication challenges that would undoubtedly arise, as I explored differences of opinion in the team around the new concepts and ideas we were exploring. It brought me back to being present in the moment.
If you’re looking for training support to enhance your team’s skills at successfully navigating the Reactive Zone of Communication, for more collaborative, productive conversations, you can take a look at the workshops I offer here: lindsaylapaquette.com/keynotes-workshops.
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