A couple of months ago, I was teaching an introduction to the Enneagram, and a student raised a question that frequently comes up in a discussion about personality types. She said: “I think my [colleague, friend, spouse] is the Enneagram type that we’ve just been talking about. How can I get her to see that she’s doing that thing that is typical of her personality type, and by the way, it’s really driving me crazy!”
My response was: “Whenever you think that someone else is driving you crazy, the first thing to do is to look at yourself.”
That is not often the response that people want to hear, but if you’re going to be masterful in your relationships with other people, an excellent way to start is by cultivating your relationship with yourself. Being in close contact with yourself helps you to discern when you’re being reactive in relationships, and when you’re being responsive. And being responsive, with yourself and others, can make an enormous difference in the quality of your relationships.
So what are some clues to understanding the difference between reactivity and responsiveness?
When you’re reactive, you are caught in your own habitual loop of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Although reactivity shows up differently in different people (depending on your personality type, you may react to triggering situations by becoming more assertive, or by withdrawing yourself from the situation), it usually feels constricting, like you have very few or no options for working through the situation in another way. What’s common across all reactive behaviors is that they are fueled by old stories about yourself, stories that focus you on past hurts or concerns, with limited perspective on the particular reality of the current situation. How does this affect your relationships? Well, when you try to give someone else feedback or resolve conflict from a reactive state, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. Your reactivity will likely cause more reactivity in the other person.
When you’re responsive, you have a lot of space for yourself and others. You can see the other person’s behavior, and see and feel your own responses to the situation. The situation could feel challenging, but no one is bad, or a problem. There’s a sense of confidence and calm even if you are feeling something strongly. When you are responsive, you have options, and feel as if you are empowered to make choices. Best of all, when you’re in a responsive state, you can invite others into that state. There’s no guarantee that they’ll join you there, but if there’s any chance that they will, you have to know how to go there first.
Here are some ideas about developing responsiveness to yourself and others:
- Know what triggers you. What is it about the other person’s behavior that is getting under your skin? Here’s where having a friend, colleague, coach, or therapist to talk to can help you to understand your own patterns and make peace with them. It’s amazing to discover that when you are at peace with yourself, you have way more capacity to be at peace with others.
- Know what your intentions are, and if appropriate, voice them to the other person. People can sense the difference between someone who wants to have a discussion that furthers both people’s objectives and the relationship, and someone who just wants to tell you what they think is wrong with you. When you’re clear about your intention in the relationship, there’s a lot more room to constructively work through disagreements and conflicts.
- Practice connecting to a more spacious sense of yourself. Practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi, or being in nature can help you to experience a larger perspective than the one you usually grab onto when you’re triggered.
- Know what your boundaries are. Just because you’re spacious doesn’t mean that you’re a pushover. Developing responsiveness means having the ability to respond to both your own needs and the other person’s needs from a place of groundedness and clarity.
Learning to ground your body is a fundamental practice that helps to reduce reactivity and develop responsiveness. Your body will often begin to react to a triggering situation before you’re cognitively aware that something has upset you. Once your body gets revved up or shut down, it’s much more difficult to access that spacious sense of responsiveness.
Anytime Ground is a practice that helps to cultivate the strength of your connection with the ground, and to create a stable, calm foundation for yourself. Speaking & Listening from Ground helps to bring that foundation into your relationships. Follow this link to the Resources page, where you can find both of these underneath the Practice section.