“In between stimulus and response, there is a space…” When I hear that phrase, I (perhaps like many of you) am drawn instantly to Viktor Frankl’s powerful book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, the Austrian psychiatrist, philosopher and Nazi concentration camp survivor pointedly tells us: “In between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our capacity to choose our response. And in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In this post, I’d like to share with you a few of the ways that this powerful claim has resonated with me over the years… and a new one that has only resonated with me for a few months!
In my work as an ontological coach, author and leadership development program leader, I share what I believe to be an eye-opening and empowering set of claims that can support leaders – and all of us – in more effectively accomplishing results, building relationships and improving the “quality of our journey.” Among these are:
o Self-awareness – becoming more powerful, more competent observers of ourselves – is the necessary starting point for any purposeful, meaningful change. The only person we can actually change is ourselves, but we can’t change what we can’t see. We can’t change what we don’t notice.
o Language creates and generates… it does not simply describe. Every “yes” and every “no” move us in the world, one way or another… opening doors and possibilities as well as closing them. The vast majority of our relationships are not physical or sexual; rather, they are conversational. Changes in your conversations with your friend, your customer or your brother-in-law = changes to your relationships with your friend, your customer and your brother-in-law. It’s the conversations that actually constitute the relationships as being what they are! The United States was declared into being, was it not? Now, there was work to do after that declaration, yes… but without that declaration, the US doesn’t exist. All companies are also declared into being, as evidenced by our finding in the original articles of incorporation – 100% of the time – a version of this phrase: “… we shareholders do hereby declare…” and voila, August 1 the company does not exist and August 2 it does. Leaders build culture not with hammers and nails but with certain types of conversations. Language also creates and generates context, and context matters. It’s not physical but it’s real, serving to dramatically shape the meaning and understanding we form in our most important conversations. Organizations themselves may be understood as networks of conversations and commitments, all interconnected and interdependent and collectively producing – not describing – both the culture of the company as well as the levels of productivity, accountability and effectiveness the organization achieves. (Note that we’re not saying that we don’t describe with language; we undoubtedly do. What we’re saying is that’s not all that we do! And it’s this “not all that we do” that is the creative and generative power of language.
o One of my teachers back in my coach certification program said it this way, and over the years I have come to see this play out in a wide range of scenarios: “Not being able to say a certain thing = not being able to be a certain way.”
o We “live in language.” All of us, all the time. What is meant by this? In my workshops I ask: “Who here has the little voice inside?” And every hand goes up. I also usually say “… the one that’s saying ‘what’s he talking about?’ That’s the one!” And because we live in language, this is what’s going on: You and I and everyone on this planet are continually confronted with events, every day and in every domain of our lives. And what we do as human being is this: 1) We make up stories about these events; 2) We hold these stories to be The Truth; and 3) We forget that we made them up! And when I say “stories” I don’t mean fibs or fabrications, purposeful manipulations or self-deceptions. Rather, I simply mean “interpretations”… “explanations.”
o This leads us to a powerful additional claim: Event is not = Explanation…and this is a crucial understanding for any of us genuinely seeking to deepen and strengthen our self-awareness. The event belongs to itself… and your explanation belongs to you, my explanation belongs to me. And this is critical to understand: Not all explanations are created equal! Some explanations can and will paralyze us (have you ever experienced this?) while others open wide avenues of unprecedented possibilities.
o Another key question: Is it the events of your life, or your explanations about those events, that are the main influencers of the actual actions you take in the world? I ask this question in workshops and the answer always comes back “it’s the explanations”. And out of the actual actions we take in the world, we end up producing a wide range of quantitative and qualitative results in our lives, do we not? And to reinforce: It’s always our explanations of events – and not the events themselves – that drive our actions and results in our lives. And these explanations “live in language.”
o It’s not a problem that we make up explanations; we apparently have to, as we human beings “live in language!” The problem is (back to self-awareness) that we don’t see that we are doing this! And this is hugely important to see: If you do not see yourself now as making up explanations… and taking action based on them… and then you couple this with you not producing some important result in your life… in those instances, the option for you to author a more powerful interpretation will never occur to you. It’ll be off your radar… because if you don’t see yourself as doing this now, there’s nothing to update! And in this moment you will have taken off the table even the option of “looking at how you look at things”… and thereby dramatically limited your own possibilities.
Now, back to Viktor Frankl’s wonderful quote… and ways that it has resonated with me over the years of sharing these claims and “ways of seeing things” that are in my books and programs:
In between Event and Explanation there is a space. In that space lies our capacity to author our explanation. And in that space lies our growth, our freedom and our ability explore and expand possibilities for new actions… and therefore possibilities for new results… that are impossible to conceive without this explicit and clear separation between events and explanations.
If the word “explanation” doesn’t resonate with you, substitute “interpretation” or “story” or “narrative” or “beliefs”… to me, they are identical.
In between situation occurring and my interpretation of that situation, there is a space.
In between life experience and my belief about that experience, there is a space.
In between occurrence and my story about that occurrence, there is a space.
In between X happening and my narrative about X, there is a space.
For those of you familiar with my books and with the key language acts of Assertions (facts) and Assessments (opinions or judgments), we can also add this:
In between Assertions (what is so) and my Assessments about them (so what?), there is a space.
One of my teachers, Julio Olalla, said this in a workshop I attended and I have never forgotten it. He said: “You are not the conversations you have become.” One of the other questions I remember discussing back in those early workshops was this: “Are you telling your stories, or are your stories telling you?” I believe these are indeed very worthwhile questions and observations for those of us seeking to be more conscious in the ways we live our lives – at home, at work and everywhere in between.
Now, in just the past few months I have also come across another way that Viktor Frankl’s “in between stimulus and response” quote comes to mind and can be applied in our lives. If you haven’t read “The Untethered Soul” by Michael A. Singer, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so, for it’s in this book that I learned what I’m about to share with you.
Right now, stop what you’re doing and count to 3 in your head. Just stop… and count 1, 2, 3 mentally. Now, assuming you’ve done it – was it hard? Virtually all of us would say no indeed, it was quite simple. Agree.
Now, do it again but this time visually bring the numbers “1” and “2” and “3” into view, as if they were on a movie screen in your mind as you count them. So as you’re counting you “see” the numbers. Assuming you’ve done this, same question: Was it hard? The answer, of course, is no – not hard at all.
What you just did was a willful and intentional exercise of your mind, and in this sense we can say that when you’re doing this you are the author of your thoughts.
Now, let’s do something different. Quiet your mind and start counting to 100 mentally… starting at 1 and going to 100. Start now. Question: How long would it be (or how long was it) until an uninvited, unsolicited thought “popped in” and interrupted your counting? For a great many of us, it happens before we get to 20 or even 10! Now, in this scenario, we can say that you’re not intentionally and willfully authoring those thoughts… here, it’s more accurate to say that you’re observing them. You are not so much the author, but more so the observer of these thoughts. Agree?
Think about mental and emotional well-being – yours as well as others’ – as you think about these next observations:
o Many of these unsolicited, uninvited thoughts are not overly helpful or positive; instead, in many cases, they are troublesome and unhelpful and overly critical and bring stress and anxiety into our lives.
o These uninvited thoughts can also be completely contradictory from previous uninvited thoughts! The thoughts can vary from one position to another incredibly quickly… such that if we thought rationally and thoughtfully about taking advice from these thoughts, we would most likely seek counsel elsewhere!
o A word comes to mind here: ruminating. Many of us know people who have ended up ruminating, dwelling on these unhelpful thoughts to the point of inflicting genuine harm to themselves, their relationships, their well-being, their public identity, their lives. If we’re honest, many of us have also done this from time to time, have we not? This, as it turns out, is quite “normal” (normal meaning practiced by a great majority of us… not that it is necessarily “ok” or helpful).
With this in mind, I offer this:
You and I are not our thoughts. We are the authors and the observers of them. We are clearly separate from them. A powerful interpretation (answer to the basic question “Who are you?”) I’ve learned and would like to share is this: At our core, we may each be understood to be Aware Consciousness… looking out at the world. I’ve been looking out at the world from “in here” since I can remember… and so have you. We are looking out and are aware of external things passing in front of us, such as cars and people and trees and clouds and situations at work and home… and we are looking in and are aware of internal things passing in front of us, such as our thoughts and our emotions and narratives and interpretations. We are separate from our thoughts and emotions… instead, we are noticing them, we are observing them. This separation is crucial to see and understand.
Another claim: human consciousness has the wonderful ability to focus, does it not? We can focus our awareness, focus our consciousness, on something to the point where someone can be next to us calling our name and we don’t hear them! Just as we can be totally engrossed in a movie to the point of not being aware of what’s going on around us, we can be every bit as engrossed in these uninvited, unsolicited thoughts. And to the extent that we do this, we take ourselves away from what’s right in front of us… from being truly present in our lives.
Each unfolding present moment is where life is actually lived, is it not? (If not there, where?!) And if we are not aware and conscious about this, we can end up spending a great deal of time and energy and attention in ways that don’t truly serve us.
Some new ways of understanding that I learned from Michael A. Singer are:
An uninvited guest who is ignored soon departs. I love the way he says this: a guest who is ignored soon departs. And many of our thoughts are indeed uninvited.
When you and I place our attention… our awareness… our consciousness… our energy… on these thoughts, we are giving them power. They have no power in and of themselves… it’s only by our placing (shining, focusing) our awareness on them that they can grow in strength. And as Viktor Frankl reminds us, we have a choice in this matter.
In between unsolicited thought and our response to that thought, there is a space. We can either choose to place our attention and focus and awareness on this uninvited, unsolicited thought… we can dwell with it and ruminate on it… or we can relax and lean away from it. We get to choose. It’s up to us. If we choose to relax and lean away from it, it will depart. And in that choice (and in repeating this choice, over time as these unsolicited thoughts pop up) we can dramatically improve our mental state and our emotional well-being!
Now, this is a choice we must exercise over and over, certainly it’s not a one-time thing… because the way we have lived our lives up to this point may have been such that we have regularly allowed ourselves to focus on and dwell on and attend to all make and manner of unsolicited thoughts. But this is a practice we can all undertake, if we choose, and if we keep it up long enough, the benefits can be transformative.
In the book, the author says that simply allowing your consciousness to latch onto and focus on all of these random, often-contradictory, often unhelpful unsolicited thoughts is like driving on a freeway without having your hands on the wheel or your feet on the petals! None of us would think of doing that… but how many of us operate in that fashion as it relates to our willful placing of our awareness, our energy, our consciousness?
How conscious do you want to be? How intentional do you want to be in living your life?
In between stimulus and response, there is a space. I invite you to consider these spaces as they occur in your life, to begin explicitly noticing them, and to more purposefully choose your responses to both the external stimuli and the internal stimuli that you will inevitably encounter.
External events occur, and we can choose our explanations, our interpretations, our stories, narratives and beliefs. And it is these explanations, interpretations, stories, narrative and beliefs that move us into action and that ultimately drive the results we experience in our lives.
Internal uninvited, unsolicited thoughts occur… and we can choose whether to place our awareness, our energy, our consciousness on them… or to relax and lean away from them with the knowledge that an ignored guest soon departs. In doing so, we are making a choice to be intentional and purposeful about our lives in a very deep, very impactful way.
I wish you well on all fronts, I look forward to any and all opportunities to be a resource for you and your teams… and remember: Never Stop Learning!