You know THAT person. We all do.
The smugness in his voice, the rock-arrogance in the way she stands, the smirk of condescension as they seem to lecture you, the fake niceness of their smile that you don’t buy for a second.
You feel yourself boil and rebel inside. Yes, THAT person.
How we respond to such folks, and how we manage ourselves in their presence, is a supreme test of our personal maturity and leadership agility.
No easy answers here. Each situation, each trigger is a cauldron of its own. I like a program taught by Stanford University’s Medical School. Their Compassion Cultivation Training Program (CCT) was created by Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s preeminent English translator, in collaboration with a group of neuroscientists and psychologists, and is taught by over 100 certified teachers all over the world. No need to go to Stanford to take it (The Wall Street Journal, 8/1/2017).
What does CCT teach?
It does not suggest we forgive “bad” behavior or make it OK. Instead, CTT offers tools for managing our response to such behavior and – gasp – invoking compassion for the person that triggers us. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Davis studied the impact of CCT. They assessed people’s ability to identify their own undesirable emotional states and their skill in monitoring and regulating these states. Using CCT’s approach to cultivating compassion for folks that trigger us, the subjects of the study successfully regulated “negative states” such as anxiety and stress and increased positive states such as calm.
Yes, it’s an inside job. And here are 4 simple CCT Compassion Habits that invoke these positive results:
1. Accept your Thoughts
You know those ugly thoughts, the petty ones, the ones that you don’t want anyone to know you have? Because you’re too smart and too enlightened to have them, right? Yes, those. If and when you have those thoughts, don’t suppress them. Because when you do, you activate the amygdala in your brain where your fight-or-flight instincts originate. Suppression makes you more anxious in the long-run. Accept, and your thoughts are more likely to shift on their own.
2. Switch out of “I’m Good, They’re Bad”
When your thoughts do overtime in damning the person that triggers you, do a “just like me” check. How is s/he behaving in a way that reminds me of how I behaved at some point in the past? When did I act smug, rude, self-important, pompous, disrespectful? Seeing yourself in the other person’s behavior does not imply you condone the behavior. It will, however, lesson the vehemence of your reaction to the behavior. And that will be helpful to you AND the situation you find yourself in.
3. Imagine their life
When folks are “pushing your buttons,” take a second to imagine the other roles they play in their life. S/he might be a father or a mother. A child to a parent. A person with hidden dreams. Someone with struggles you know nothing about. This imaginary leap into the rest of this person’s life allows you to respond in a more measured and perhaps less angry way. You activate a measure of compassion for this person without in any way making the present-moment-behavior OK. You have instantly restored a bit of serenity to yourself. That’s a pretty wonderful gift.
4. Tune into your body
When someone triggers us, s/he usually triggers obsessive thinking. “I can’t believe anyone would behave this way. Who does s/he think s/he is? What an arrogant jerk!” We get trapped in obsessive thought and don’t notice what’s going on in our body. Notice the shallow breathing, the tight shoulders, the quivering hands. Notice and adjust what your body is doing. You’re instantly dialing down the intensity of your obsessive thoughts. The moment we focus on adjusting our body, we have already stopped obsessing about the other person.
Think of these habits as a marriage of Buddhist thought and neuroscientific wisdom. A pretty perfect marriage, don’t you think? Like all good marriages best not taken for granted. Practice these habits diligently. Less triggered days will be your reward.