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Think Before You Act: How to React with Respect

In my opinion, disrespectful behavior is at an all-time high in our society. Stress seems to be fueling an increase in angry outbursts, unconscionable remarks, and a general lack of accountability. I have certainly noticed this in my daily life, in my work life, and in my family’s experiences outside the home. So what can we do to counterbalance a sudden spike in road rage, uncivil treatment, overreaction - or even when we feel like ‘going off’ on someone ourselves?

Take a deep breath and focus on what the world needs rather than backsliding into what the world does not need. This does not mean becoming a doormat. Quite the opposite. In fact, I have become more assertive in an effort to put my conscious choices above the knee-jerk behavior of others. Ultimately, we all have to do what we think is right even if it feels uncomfortable, especially when younger eyes are watching us for signals about how to cope with feelings of overwhelm, fear, and anger in a world that feels more chaotic on a daily basis.

I have come up with a few rules of thumb for how to cope with unexpected upsets. These are not hard-and-fast rules, but rather behaviors to strive for in tumultuous times, keeping in mind that none of us are perfect nor are any of us always right. Since we all make mistakes, we can use these guidelines to correct course and to pick each other up when one of us starts to stumble. We cannot control the behavior of others, but if we strive to de-escalate hostile, shocking, or inappropriate behaviors, we can congratulate ourselves for setting a good example for our children and future generations.

Listen rather than react - Listening requires paying attention. We may immediately disagree with what is being proposed, but we owe it to our own intelligence and to others to keep our ears open and our mouths closed, at least until we are fairly certain we have absorbed what is being communicated. If you find yourself feeling reactive, take deep breaths while listening and take a beat before you respond. Usually the difference between responding and reacting is a matter of being thoughtful.

Choose bravery in the face of bullying - Sometimes things happen in our midst and we need to be the voice of reason over irrationality. This could mean stumbling on an incident of road rage, calmly confronting a person who is over-reacting, or bringing a cheerful presence into an otherwise discouraged room. Be as respectful, direct, and gentle as you can muster and try to redirect the situation in a more constructive direction. Standing up to a bully, a ranter, or a person who is seriously discouraged takes finesse, so don’t be afraid to practice.

Express honest emotion rather than repress feelings - These days, trying to keep up with our feelings can feel like a tall order. And yet, if we don’t keep up with what is going on inside of us, it’s all too easy for emotions to become bottled up and then come barreling out in an unfortunate direction. Sit still once in a while, pull out a journal or a doodle pad, and jot down whatever truths you are experiencing. You can share how you feel with at least one empathetic listener: yourself.

Seek acceptance instead of intolerance - We are not in charge of the whole-wide world, even if we sometimes think we have all the answers. It is more constructive to focus on what we can control, instead of what we cannot. When we prioritize our responsibilities, and take them one step at a time, we feel calmer and more grounded, which automatically makes us feel more flexible and tolerant. Acceptance means accepting what is and moving on.

Enjoy nature, a cure for overwhelm - Increasingly, adults and children spend time online. The Internet can provide resources that facilitate positive experiences and self-expression, but the temptation to overuse technology to provide an escape from real-life challenges is ever-present. That’s why it’s important to remember to spend time in nature each day and encourage your kids to do the same. On a particularly busy day, even five minutes spent with feet on the ground outdoors can refresh our connection to the Earth we all share.

Regroup beyond bad news - The 24-hour news cycle makes our busy lives seem scarier than they actually are. To regain control of your peace of mind, limit your family’s exposure to news while it’s happening. Breaking news is often a competition between outlets for eyeballs without appropriate ethical restraint to filter out images and headlines that needlessly frighten viewers. Schedule plenty of unplugged downtime with your family, so everyone can regroup regularly without the interruption of the latest tragedies.

Agree to disagree; avoid antagonism - There are more opportunities to argue, debate, and fight with others than ever before. The Internet makes it easy to seek out whomever you consider ‘the opposition’ and wage virtual war against them whether arguing about a controversial topic, coping with Internet trolls, or fighting with family members about divergent political views. A simple solution is to require face-to-face interactions when sorting out disagreements rather than getting sucked into a public word duel.

Cooperate over competing - With so much disturbing news constantly streaming at us, no wonder the world starts to feel like survival of the fittest. In order to cooperate and flourish, we have to feel safe and secure. When scarcity rules, we start unconsciously competing with each other for the myth of limited resources. But when cooperation is valued as much as competition, the world becomes a much friendlier place.

Find empathy, not apathy - With so much stress in the world, numbing out may seem like a sensible choice. But perhaps the best strategy is to stay present in the moment and notice the folks who are right in front of us. Hold the door for the person coming in behind you, pick up something dropped by an elderly person, and smile at the counter worker and wish them a nice day. Little acts of kindness celebrate the human connection.

Choose joy; transcend suffering - So often these days, good news seems to roll in with bad news following swiftly behind. It’s easier to say everything stinks instead of making an effort to find something to appreciate. Why not try a little harder to amplify the good in the world, while simultaneously affirming your ability to withstand petty annoyances? Shoo away the habit of getting annoyed and focus on the sweetness in the world. Once you master this, you really are in charge of your own attitude.

Resources for how to deal with difficult people

How to Deal With Difficult People: Smart Tactics for Overcoming the Problem People in Your Life by Gill Hasson

De-escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less by Douglas E. Noll

The Bullying Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal With Social Aggression and Cyberbullying by Raychelle Cassada Lohmann MS, LPC, and Julia V. Taylor, MA

Stick Up For Yourself! Every Kids Guide to Personal Power and Positive Self-Esteem by Gershen Kaufman, Ph.D., Lev Raphael, Ph.D., and Pamela Espeland

Author, journalist, and coach Christina used to think it was better to say nothing at all rather than something that might rock the boat. These days, she’s speaking up and letting the chips fall where they may with positive results. 

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