The Space Between the Stimulus and the Response

In his bestselling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey talks about the space that exists between the stimulus and the response. In that space is the power to choose.

A Big Pause Button - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Zeffss1, Image #10174290

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Zefss1

This space is like a giant pause button. We don’t have to react to every stimulus. Instead, we can pause, reflect, and chose our response. This is precisely what makes us human.

Unfortunately, I have not always taken advantage of this space. In the 1990s, I owned a literary agency with my business partner. One day, out of the blue, one of our clients sent my partner a scathing letter. It contained several inaccuracies and false accusations. I was furious and took up an offense.

I spent the next twenty-four hours writing and re-writing a letter to the client, defending my friend and partner. I thought I was in a better position to uphold his honor than he was.

The letter was brilliant. Or so I thought. It read like a legal brief. I took every accusation and systematically dismantled it. I wrote fourteen pages, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the client’s claims were baseless and without merit.

I then overnighted the letter to the client, convinced that I had proven my case. I was sure he would call with an apology.

Almost fifteen years later, I am still waiting.

The client never responded. He didn’t acknowledge the letter. He didn’t respond to it. He just ignored it. I eventually came to the conclusion that writing long, angry letters is not a very productive exercise.

In the space between the stimulus and the response, I had not chosen well. I had simply reacted, like a dog who sees a squirrel and automatically gives chase.

But that experience didn’t keep me from firing off angry emails from time-to-time. While I had learned from my previous experience, I had not learned as much as I should have. As a result, I have continued to send blistering messages from time to time. Inevitably, I have always regretted it.

Just two weeks ago, I had another lapse of judgment. (I know, I am a slow learner.) In a moment of frustration, I Twittered about my experience. I didn’t think it was that big of deal—in fact, I thought it was kind of cute. But once again I lived to regret it.

In reality, my post was a cheap shot. It was a rude, insensitive comment aimed at a specific organization. Sadly, via Twitter, I broadcast it to 45,000 people. I forgot I had a megaphone in my hand.

Fortunately, one of my staff members brought it to my attention. Embarrassed, I did the only thing you can do after screwing up: I apologized to the party I had offended, both in writing and over the phone.

I wanted to write about this while it was fresh in my mind. I think this will help me make a better choice next time, if I can document what I have learned. Perhaps you can also learn something.

Therefore, next time I get frustrated or angry:

  1. I will pause before responding. I will remember that there is a space between the stimulus and the response. That space is my opportunity to chose the wise, mature thing. I want to handle situations in a way that I don’t regret later. To quote St. James, I want to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:27 NKJV).
  2. I will give myself time to cool down. It is amazing how different things look when you get a little perspective. I rarely need to respond immediately, and 8–24 hours later, things almost always look different. Therefore, I will take a deep breath and reflect.
  3. I will not write anything in anger. This includes Twitter posts, Facebook messages, emails, and letters. If I am angry with someone, I will confront them personally, preferably in person. If that is not possible, I will call them. Launching angry salvos from the safety of my office may make me feel courageous. But it is not. It is cowardly and foolish. It does not accomplish anything good.

As leaders, we need to set a higher standard—myself included. I need to see the space between the stimulus and the response as my opportunity to make a better choice. With God’s help, I will.

Question: What about you? How are you handling the space between the stimulus and the response?
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  • http://twitter.com/adamrshields @adamrshields

    It has been over a decade since I read 7 Habits and that is the one concept that I come back to over and over and share with people. We too often forget it. Good post Michael.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Adam. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I loved it and have re-read it several times.

  • http://twitter.com/GinaParris @GinaParris

    Nice post. Actually Viktor Frankl made famous that quote about the space between stimulus and response, but it is a subject that never gets old.

    I have recently starting dealing with my "anger triggers" ahead of time, choosing to change my learned response with one of my choice. I never knew I had such triggers till raising teenagers! (Being quick to apologize hopefully sets a good example too.)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I do remember that now. Man’s Search for Meaning is also one of my all-time favorite books. Deeply moving and profound. For those of you who haven't read it, Frankl was a psychiatrist who spent three years in four different concentration camps in WWII.

  • Shari Risoff

    Thank you for this… I too have the same propensity to react first and have spent my entire life working on that. I am fairly new to Twitter still, but at least with email I have learned to write the email – get it out of my system but do NOT send it. I save it as a draft and go back 24 hours later to see if I still want to send it. I have never yet sent one that I saved as a draft that way.

    My former way of pausing was to take a cigarette break to remove myself from a tense situation. Now that I am no longer smoking, I am still searching for the effective pause. It begins with my prayer that God place His duct tape on my mouth until I will speak and act as He would.

    It's a life-long learning lesson for me. Please continue to share on this subject.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I sometimes wish Twitter had a draft mode!

  • Tracy Atcheson

    Thank you for being transparent, acknowledging a mistake and sharing where you have grown from it. This is appreciated so much from someone in a ledership postition like yours.

  • http://www.scottsutherland.wordpress.com Scott

    This is so good, Michael. Your transparency is greatly appreciated.

    It has also helped me to become more aware that people have alot of “stuff” in their life that directly affects their responses to people. For instance, a guy in our neighborhood randomly started yelling at me while I was driving by, and my 12 yr. old son was in the car with me. I was so angry and wanted to pull over and give the guy a verbal chastising. Not only would that have been a poor example to my son, but I quickly remembered that I had heard this guy recently lost his job. I’m sure the guy has a great deal of fear which has a direct effect on the measure of stimulus and response.

    “Fearless” by Max Lucado has been a tremendous resource for me in dealing with the stimulus and response, but also recognizing it in others.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think that level of empathy is what we lose when we react. It suddenly becomes all about us. That's the beauty of pausing and perspective. I can try to see things from the other person's point-of-view. Thanks.

  • http://www.robertgtaylor.com Robert Taylor

    I appreciate the post. Too many times, I have let the irritation of the moment put a choke chain on my thinking. I thank you for putting into words things I experience but also giving the three points to hit the pause button.

  • Marilyn

    The importance of pausing before responding is an important takeaway from Emerson Eggerichs' Love and Respect, too.

    Emerson encourages spouses for what he refers to as gender-based "decoding," because automatic responses can all too frequently start up the "Crazy Cycle".

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I attended one of Emerson’s seminars this past summer with my wife, Gail. We loved it. The “crazy cycle” is a powerful concept to understand.

  • Marilyn

    And, on the topic of pausing before responding…. My previous post indicates another good reason to pause before responding – you'll have a better chance of catching your typos!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I rarely post anything without typos. Thankfully, my readers usually catch them—or are very forgiving!

  • Colleen Coble

    I love email but it's one failing is that it's too easy to send off something without thinking it through. So now if I have anything sticky to email about, I let it sit in my draft folder overnight. Nine times out of ten, I end up deleting the whole email or at least changing it substantially.

    Great post, Mike!

  • Colleen Coble

    Eek! That should be ITS one failing. I hate that kind of mistake. LOL There should be an edit button on posted comments. :-)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I have done the same thing, Colleen. It may seem like a time-waster, but I think writing the email is an important part of the process, even if (as I usually do) delete it later. Thanks!

  • http://reneeteate.wordpress.com Renee Teate

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. For being humble enough to "publicize" your own weakness and giving me the opportunity to be reminded that we all fail. There is an appropriate response to failure when recognized, too, and it is not perpetual guilt.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, this is an important distinction. I don’t wallow in my mistakes. Once I have dealt with the issue, I move on, spiritually and emotionally.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/chrishuff chrishuff

    I've been in the position where the stimulus is a person's attack on my character. I've found that typically they are angry about something that has happened to them in which I might have some involvement – they are merely directing their anger at me.
    Therefore, I ask them two questions…"what's wrong?" and "what's really wrong that you haven't told me?" Using this method, I can find the root cause of the issue, address that issue, and our relationship is better for it.
    If my first response is to address the perceived need and not the root issue, I'm going to end up dealing with more issues with that person until the root issue is revealed.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Two GREAT questions.

  • http://JulieSurfaceJohnson.blogspot.com Julie Johnson

    Thanks for a timely reminder! I'm leaving in 10 minutes to meet with one of those "difficult" people in life. I've made the mistake of reacting to her insensitivity before and am always in danger of falling into that trap. I am going armed with James 1:27.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I pray that verse before EVERY encounter I anticipate will be difficult. It is a game-changer. Usually. ;-)

  • http://www.generatornetwork.com Mike Rapp

    On this note, if you use Gmail, check out the Labs link (it's next to Settings). Google has a feature in beta called Delayed Send.

    http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2009/03/new-in-labs

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I saw that the other day, and thought, Brilliant!

  • http://www.southwrite.wordpress.com Randy Southerland

    This is one of those things that reads as if it were written just for me. I've spent a great deal of my life reacting — and then living to regret it. Most of the time it was over small things that were of little consequence, but its a habit of action that sets you up for doing considerable damage to yourself, others, and your relationships. Just like you I've been working on it for years and every time I forget about the pause I'm back starting over again. And, hoping that the next reaction will be that much further in the future. Thanks for your post, Michael.

  • Nikky Tenllado

    This is definitely a quality I have always had to work on in myself. Thanks for the reminder! I will say that I have learned, at a very early age, that I never write something down that I might once regret. However, sometimes we might not know what we will regret until after it is too late! The St. James quote that you shared will be posted on my computer as a reminder as I fire out emails everyday. Thank you for the tips! What a great way to start my day.

  • Tommy P

    A few weeks ago, when leading a small group, I was attacked right in the middle of it. The attacks were off base. After small group, the attacker went and told another guy that wasn't in the small group that night some things that were allegedly said about him in his absence. So that pulled another into the attack.

    My immediate response was to defend, but thankfully I called my coworker at the church instead. I realized in all of this how Jesus responded to accusations; He didn't. So that's the stance I've taken. I plan to sit down with each of the guys and let them explain how they feel about me, without defending myself. Arguing my side won't really do a whole lot, especially seeing that it is sin that is clouding their view of me.

    Admittedly though, I was very discouraged by it all. Then my wife showed me your Friends, Critics, and Trolls blog, and I saw that you hit the nail on the head. You described the situation perfectly. I then realized that, in my position, this is probably going to happen a whole lot more. I just need to be prepared for it.

    Thanks

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Good for you. You are definitely taking the wise and humble approach. God exalts the humble and humbles the proud.

  • Scott Macdonald

    Pray and seek God's perspective, wisdom, and guidance.

  • http://www.moonboatcafe.com Cassandra Frear

    This is such an important thing for Christians. I refer to this principle often in ministry. I often think it may be one of THE marks of maturity.

    Thanks for posting about it

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Me, too. The people I admire the most are the ones who remain calm under attack and refuse to respond in kind.

  • http://onbloggingwell.com Linda Fulkerson

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who has done this. Just three weeks ago I fired off an angry email to what I thought was the hosting service I'd had trouble with, but it was the NEW service I'd just transferred some sites to. Within seconds, my main site had a post up that said, "Account Suspended." Yikes!

    I immediately re-read the email I sent and realized I'd offended the wrong person. (Not thinking at the time that I should strive to not offend anyone!) I apologized profusely about 5 times but I still know the guy was hurt. He wrote back, "You're lucky I just suspended the account instead of hitting the delete key."

    I can't blame him — I used the word "idiot." Very unprofessional and unChristian. I'm not typically mean-spirited and I'd let the frustration with the previous company get to me. I'm still ashamed I did that but hopefully I learned a valuable lesson.

    Thanks for your post. I enjoy reading your blog and have learned a lot from it. My daughter even bought a pair of those weird toe-shoes after reading your post about them, LOL!

    Linda Fulkerson

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      It is so easy to react in written form. It’s more difficult in person. That's why I think it is always best to visit someone personally and talk it through. But, as we all know, easier said than done.

  • http://www.kendavis.com Ken Davis

    Great post Mike. In 40 years of public ministry I have responded defensively to countless letters of criticism, some warranted and some inaccurate and cruel. I don't ever remember getting a response. The psyche of a critic pretty much eliminates the possibility of debate or change of heart. One day it hit me how much time and emotion I had wasted trying to convert these people from critics to friends. I finally wrote a nasty form letter. When ever I get one of those scathing critics. I read the letter, sign it and throw it away. It's almost like sending it. Makes me feel better. Thanks again for the great post. Now let me tell you what i didn't like about it……………………………….. (-:

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Ken, that is an awesome response. I need to create a form letter, too!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/halhunter halhunter

    Every time I have "gone off half cocked" it has cost me no end of grief. The considered and thoughtful response reached, not in the heat of emotion but in the calm of rational reflection, will always serve us better. Of course, sometimes calm, rational reflection will come to the conclusion that a rant is in order- but it will be a RATIONAL rant.

  • Sandy Bradley

    Thank you, Mike for letting us know that you are human and you mess up sometimes, too. I was recently on the receiving end of a scathing e-mail and spent the day alternating between anger and thinking how I could ever forgive the person. My accountability partner was mad, too, But as we talked and prayer over the situation, I decided to call the person that night and apologize. She was really surprised that I would call and ask for forgiveness (even though she never apolgoized for what she did). However, the next night at church, she did come up and tell me she loved me and gave me a big hug (guess that was her way of apologizing). Everything is well with that situation now and I am so thankful that for once in my life, I did not fire back with an equally angry response. Now, if I can just learn . . . .

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      It is amazing how difficult it is for many people to admit they were wrong and ask forgiveness. Maybe it gets easier with practice. I have certainly plenty of opportunity for that!

  • http://kathynicholls.com Kathy

    This is so true of my life and the need to activate that pause button when I am upset. It has never paid off to react in anger. I always appreciate your openness and humanity in your posts and this one is no different. It is a great reminder and I needed that.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JasonWert JasonWert

    Thank you for being so transparent.

  • http://www.GlynnisWhitwer.com Glynnis

    One of my greatest areas of leadership is in parenting. I find it's often the most difficult place to practice wise leadership principles because I take the offenses much more personally than when I get an email from a reader. Criticize me all day long from afar and it doesn't bother me much. But back-talk from a 12-year-old sends me from 0 to 60 in a nano-second. I need to apply this principle in my home, just as much, if not more than with those I lead ourside my home.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think one of the reasons God puts us in families is so we are forced to get real and really work on our character. You can fake it with acquaintances, co-workers, and even friends. It is almost impossible with family. The biggest lessons I have learned in my life are the ones I learned from my wife and daughters.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Cindy_Graves Cindy_Graves

    Perfect, timeless advice!

    I totally relate to your line, "like a dog who sees a squirrel and automatically gives chase." Most times the squirrel I'm chasing makes it through the busy intersection and I, the slow old dog, don't.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The part I didn't write is that sometimes the dog runs into the street and gets hit by a car. That has metaphorically happened to me, too. The consequences are sometimes bigger than you could possibly imagine.

  • http://donnafrank.blogspot.com Donna Frank

    I am constantly being asked why I don't twitter. My response is always the same: I can't think of a worse idea than me being able to share my thoughts with the world the moment I have them.

    I've been saved for several years but my brain sometimes forgets that important fact. I've gotten better at not responding immediately to criticism and I remind myself daily that even a fool can be thought wise if s/he keeps silent.

    A friend recently told me, "Twittering is great because you can shoot from the hip." I assured him that when I shoot from the hip, someone inevitable gets shot in the groin. That's not going to bless anybody.

    Thanks for this post…good to be reminded of the power of our words.

    • AimeeLS

      Your post made me laugh Donna….boy have I been there.

      Praise God for forgiving us EVERYTHING and helping us avoid sin again in fututre. I've been working on my tendancy to 'shoot from the hip' for 33 years….I think I'm getting better. A little. Sometimes…

  • http://MaraMattiaArt.blogspot.com Mara

    I can relate! Also on the positive side, I have, on occasion, been so energized by exciting opportunities! But instead of immediately jumping on board (lest the opportunity pass me by) I also give pause to the idea with ample time to assess it from all angles (professional and personal). Prayer, patience, and God's timing!

  • http://www.dineenmiller.com Dineen Miller

    Excellent post! I once had a friend ask me why I wasn't jumping into a situation right away and do something. I told her I needed to wait, let God show me the proper recourse. Sometimes we don't have all the data and acting too soon could prevent us from seeing an important truth. It's hard to resist that human nature to react, but interestingly enough, through writing and life, I've learned the difference being being reactive and proactive.

    Thank you for being so transparent. :-)

  • http://www.dineenmiller.com Dineen Miller

    Oh, I left out something on that situation I just explained. Unbelievably, my actions witnessed to this friend! I was floored months later when she shared that she learned a valuable lesson that day. You just never know…

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The older I get, the more I am aware that people are watching. As a leader, you are always teaching. And, as we have all heard, “actions speak louder than words.”

  • http://www.franktownrocks.com David Bach

    Great post! I have regurgitated it on to many!

  • http://building-his-body.blogspot.com Anne Lang Bundy

    Thank you for sharing this. I'm honored to know you, Mike, if only via Twitter and your blog.

    How well I wish I did not understand from experience this Chinese proverb:
    If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I love that proverb. It is so powerful! Thanks also for your kind words.

  • Jessica Traffas

    Great post. One thing I have learned in my "pause" moments is that sometimes no response is needed at all.

    There are certain people in my life who will try to bait me into a fight that neither of us is going to win, and my silence is the only way to avoid it. Even if I think I have the most perfect, brilliant retort. Even if I KNOW I'm right. With those special people I need to just keep my mouth (and my laptop) shut.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. It is a great spiritual discipline to remain silent when being falsely accused. This is one of the things I especially admire about Jesus (see 1 Peter 2:21–23).

  • http://www.andyblanks.com Andy

    As usual, great post Michael. I appreciate how willing you are to discuss your missteps as a leader. It allows those of us in leadership to learn from your experience. I mean it when I say, "Thank you."

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for stopping to say “thanks.” It means more than you know.

  • Gordon

    When I was at school (many many years ago, now), a teacher told me to slowly count to ten before I responded emotionally in any situation. Later, after becoming a Christian, I found a better solution – slowly speak out the first ten words of the Lord’s prayer.

    Shalom

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Great advice!

  • http://twitter.com/KarlaAkins @KarlaAkins

    I think any of us in leadership deal with this challenge. We are in leadership because we are take-charge kind of people. I just wrote to someone about the time I chewed out a worker in a former church who was being hurtful and mean towards a child. That really pushes my buttons. Well, I did it in front of others — what I was doing was just as bad as what he was doing. AND, my supervisor saw it all go down. I did not earn any brownie points that day. God doesn't let me get by with anything.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I know the feeling! I think it does come from a desire to take action and right every wrong. But, the deeper work we do is the work we do on ourselves.

  • Deborah

    I like the fact that these tips can be adapted to so many things – patience before responding to attack, criticism, temptation to overeat, temptation to overspend, etc. etc. etc.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

    Mike, if I can grow to be a tenth of the leader you are then my family and my church will be well led!

  • Steve

    This is similar to the "cortico-thalamic pause" attributed to Count Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics

  • terripatrick

    It is in the space between where God lives. There is no time. There is no judgment. There is no reaction, only compassion. God's plan is grander than mortal man. God's plan is within the soul of every human.

    We choose what actions we take, in God's plan. But if we don't acknowledge the space within, we can create all kinds of chaos. Pause. Rest. Rejoice.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MichaelSGray MichaelSGray

    Excellent advice. The adrenaline rush of righteous anger can quickly become blinding. Even though it feels good to get snarky from time to time, it generally proves to be unproductive in the long run.

    I've got an email waiting in my inbox now on which I have had to hit the pause button. I may still respond with some amount of consternation, but I won't be making my response based on my knee-jerk reaction.

  • L Rollins

    One of your best posts ever.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JasonCurlee JasonCurlee

    yes…I've been guilty of flippin' out on twitter…and in the end I wonder if the ones wrong look more wrong than I do for doing the flippin out…

    Thanks for your transparency and helping us go to another level.

  • http://theincarnate.blogspot.com Matt Stephens

    Thanks, Michael. This hit me like a bullet. Totally been there… too many times… and with some big regrets. Stepping away from the conversation for at least a day is always necessary for me, but is still a discipline I'm trying to master. Print media is one of the most conducive to cowardliness. Phone calls and face-to-face are great stipulations for personal criticisms of any sort, for sure.

    Again, thanks for the reminder.

  • Kevin M

    One of my favorite portions of this concept from Stephen Covey is responsibility = ability to control your response, but I really like the addition that you have of a pause button. How many of our foot in mouth moments would be avoided by the pause? You example of the letter is why every email that could elicit a response from the other side should be held for 24 hours or more. Thanks for your post; I appreciate your thoughts and willingness to share.

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  • http://hubpages.com/profile/lemmyc Ben

    Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to become angry

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  • http://dougtoft.posterous.com Doug Toft

    This is one of my favorite blog posts ever.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Wow. Thanks, Doug.

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  • http://twitter.com/pastorbrett pastorbrett

    Bravo! Very well said. A great reminder. Thank you.

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  • iji

    what about…
    3. I will write everything in anger, but NEVER submit/post/send/etc.

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  • Sybil Williams

    Excellent post! I appreciate your ability to convey your struggle in this area as well as the insight you have provided for others in reflecting on their response to an offense.
    Thanks,

  • Colin Tindal

    OK, I get the wisdom of waiting 24 hours before sending an email, but does anyone have experience to share with finding the Pause button in a business meeting, or Church meeting or family disagreement? They’ve said something right now and you are there in front of them and tempted to be very offended and angry. It feels a little like there is no Pause button, you feel angry now. And if you don’t say something the business meeting will move on.