How to Override Your Default Reactions in Tough Conversations

Jim Bruce's picture By: Jim Bruce
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We all encounter tough conversations almost daily.  Today’s Tuesday Reading, How to Override Your Default Reactions in Tough Moments, provides some oft-needed help.  The essay is by Lee Newman, Dean of Innovation and Behavior and a professor of Behavioral Science and Leadership at IE Business School in Madrid, and appeared earlier this year on the HBR Blog Network.

We all have default behaviors.  These in-the-moment behaviors, automatic reflexes, can often make the difference between success and failure.  They can save time and effort.  And, they can dull our attention and self-control and prevent us from fully appreciating what is really happening.

As an example, Newman recalls an experience when he presented a product idea to a colleague and found himself fielding unexpected negative feedback.  His default, as an evidenced-based manager, was to fight back with facts.  While this often works, here the issue wasn’t the facts.  The colleague was upset because she hadn’t been included in the process.

What we need is a mechanism to put mental distance between the situation and the automatic response.  This requires self-control.  Research has shown that our level of self-control varies though out the day depending on a range of psychological and physiological factors – e.g., how well we slept, the time since we last ate, how hard we’ve already worked to control ourselves, among others.  When our self-control decreases, our ability to catch and override our default behaviors also decreases.

Newman suggests three things you can do to help avoid your defaults and increase your behavioral flexibility:

1.  Know your defaults.  Make a list of instances where your default behaviors typically appear.  Identify the defaults by bringing these situations to mind.  You will likely find behaviors such as talking loudly over others, interrupting, being passive or aggressive, not listening carefully on your list.

2.  Anticipate and plan your overrides.  Once you know your defaults, you can give yourself greater control by anticipating future hijacks and actively planning for them.  Research has shown that if you prepare and plan new behaviors in advance, mentally rehearsing how they would play out, you are two to three times more likely to be able to succeed in averting the default and reaching a more productive result.

3.  Design your days.  Since self-control varies across a day and a workweek, it is worthwhile to track it and schedule around it.  For example, you may want to choose not to schedule events that test your self-control at points during the day (i.e., just before lunch, after another stressful event, or just before the day ends) or the week (i.e., Friday afternoons) when self-control will be low?

Spend some time this week learning your defaults and developing overrides to give you greater control over the events of your day and lead you to being more productive in the moment.

.  .  .  .    jim

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