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He Said, She Said... But Who Heard?

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There I was, reading my e-mails, when an innocuous looking item transformed into a monster -- gushing and spewing vitriol and clearly, so clearly, lashing out in pain.

I'm talking about a particularly nasty note that appeared yesterday. It came from a former colleague (let's call this person "A"), someone I'd thought was a friend. Here's what happened:

Recently, I had a brief phone conversation with another colleague ("B"), during which I repeated observations and perspectives -- the same points which I'd previously shared with "A" in person. I used the same words and gave the same message. Life's too short to tell different versions of the truth.

"B" became upset and must have called "A" to vent. Or blame. Or whatever. And "A" felt betrayed, crushed and furious, having made the assumption that what was heard through the grapevine was accurate. I don't know what "B" told "A"; I only know that whatever I was said to have said was explosive. The results didn't work out well for anyone.

That's what happens when emotions take over and fuel people's actions. Intense emotions -- like anger, hurt, fear and betrayal -- are so powerful, not just experientially but at the level of brain function. Stress hormones interfere with rational thinking, and the perception of threat (physical or emotional) can lead to significant physiological, mental and psychological changes. When we're stressed, we react -- fast and furiously. And one of the biggest problems with e-mail is that its so fast; once you hit "Send," there's no way to take things back.

The pace is part of the problem. The faster we react, the less time there is for consideration. Furthermore, if we don't purposefully pause, we can't interrupt the chain. And, since the "feeling" part of the brain works so much faster than the "thinking" areas, the absence of a pause means we easily lose perspective. That's when emotions set direction, and we follow on a wild ride.

Responding requires listening to what's really being said. When we listen, we can apply judgment and make informed decisions. In contrast, reacting often followings hearing what we think is being said and assuming that our interpretations are true. There's little judgment present in reaction. Things get particularly dicey when we we're so emotionally aroused that we can't tell the difference between objective reality and subjective perception.

So regarding my experience yesterday, I think I understand the basic sequence of events. I told "A" and "B" the same things, but at different moments and under different circumstances. At the time, "A" was calm and listened to what I shared. In contrast, "B" was exhausted and worried and somehow heard something other than my words. Then "B" called "A." This must have been such an intense experience that "A" lost all calm, felt threatened, percolated for a bit and finally erupted by e-mailing me.

That reaction probably wasn't satisfying or constructive because I couldn't solve the real problem... that of listening to reality, and pausing to exercise judgment and developing the self-awareness required for discernment and restraint.

When you can manage your emotions, you gain unshakable confidence in your capacity to listen and respond accordingly. You don't need to live at the mercy of your own distortions and reactions. This is a learned skill, and it requires motivation, effort and practice. It also requires accepting that your reality might not actually jive with the common reality.

Mindfulness practice is among the most effective approaches to cultivating emotional management because it trains the mind to notice what's really happening in and around you, right now. Mindfulness helps us notice when inner experience doesn't align with outer circumstances. It also fosters the capacity to recognize thoughts, feelings and sensations for what they really are: mental expressions and physical experiences.

Feelings aren't facts; they come and go, constantly changing and always beckoning us to follow them passionately. But, truly, you can experience all the feelings in the world without losing control. Developing mindfulness is not about going numb. It's about becoming acutely aware of everything without losing balance.

Mindfulness practice is good for us, as individuals, but it's incredibly important to recognize that the constructive changes that mindfulness facilitates within individuals parlay into vast benefits for others. If you're mindful, your chances of diffusing a potentially explosive situation improve. That's a gift to the people around you.

If you're mindful, you're less likely to pour salt into wounds. Similarly, you're more likely to have compassion and empathy for those who can't stop themselves from making bad experiences worse. Mindfulness is protective, it promotes resilience, and it's the basis of ethical action and the root of deep caring.

I wish that I could snap my fingers and give "A" and "B" greater mindfulness. I can't. I can only keep practicing myself and try not to add fuel to their fires. In time, perhaps the ground will cool enough for reflection and new growth.

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