How to Develop Freedom and Choice over Your Responses

If we want to feel a freedom that absolutely nobody can mess with, we have to develop responsibility: the ability to determine our response to any given circumstance.

Responsibility is a golden habit – maybe the golden habit – of a person with a high personal effectiveness. Making the decision to be proactive over our responses is probably the most important decision we can make as young adults.

If you can choose your response, you are effectively free from influence Click To Tweet

And developing responsibility is literally a decision you can make overnight. Although it is hard to accept emotionally in some situations, nothing and nobody hurt us without our consent. That is the unique freedom gained when you develop responsibility. It is a buffer for failure, rejection, and the turmoil of swiftly changing conditions.

But just how do we go from reactivity – the standard position – to proactivity regarding our responses? That is what this post is about.

What does it mean, ‘freedom to respond’?

In illustrating the answer to the question, there is still no better example than the story of Viktor Frankl.

Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist, imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany. One day, naked and alone in his room, he began to be aware of what he later called ‘the last of the human freedoms’ – the ability to decide how the unimaginable horrors he endured and witnessed were going to shape his identity.

Frankl perceived that despite everything, his basic identity was intact. He wrote about his discovery of freedom in his pivotal work, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Most of us have nothing remotely equivalent to Frankl’s experience to contend with in our lives. And yet we do not exercise our capacity to choose what to focus on when we are poorly or unfairly treated.

How does taking responsibility change your life?

It is not difficult to understand why developing responsibility is completely life-changing.

What if you had the power to choose whether to be upset by your partner’s behaviour? Or if you met bad news, such as being made redundant, with activity and action, rather than hopeless resignation? Or if you learned to influence the difficult characters you need to deal with in day-to-day life?

It is probably the most important decision you'll ever make Click To Tweet

Being responsible for my responses saves me again and again in my own life. Knowing well that I can choose my response to things, I have little fear in communicating how I feel, for example, or in taking actions needed to build the future I want. I find myself a lot more willing to endure hardship, failure and rejection, knowing that I can choose to stop giving them a focus.

How easy is it to do?

It is surprisingly straightforward to develop your ability to choose your responses: all it takes is a simple decision. That said, you do need the accompanying discipline and control over your attention. I’ll talk about that more below.

There are a couple of helpful distinctions you can use to become aware of your current approach to taking responsibility in your life. Before we get to those, there is something foremost to appreciate about what the capacity to choose your response entails.

Why you need to have a strong sense of your values first

At its essence, choosing your responses is the ability to subordinate an impulse to a value. What that means is being able to put aside your emotional responses at times. Let’s say I am having to work with someone who routinely cuts me off/interrupts me when we are brainstorming. Although my emotional response is irritation, that gets subordinated to my bigger, weightier concerns on developing a solution to the problem.

When we are reactive – and we are all pretty much born reactive – we are driven by feelings and conditions of our environments. Once we have learned to be proactive however, we are driven by selected and internalized values.

I suggest that you develop a clear idea on your values alongside your ability to choose your responses. I wrote about how to know your values here.

Tips in learning to choose your response

1. Listen to your language

The language we use betrays whether we see ourselves as ‘acting or acted upon’. Reactive language absolves us of responsibility and, unfortunately, is self-fulfilling. Become aware of the language you are using. Here are a few examples of proactive replacements to reactive language:


That’s just who I am to I can choose to be different 

She makes me so angry to I can choose my feelings

I have to to I choose to


Proactive people also tend to generate feelings, instead of hoping they will happen involuntarily – feelings like inspiration and love, for example. When you are responsible, love and inspiration are verbs. You know that you recapture them yourself through action.

2. Look at where you focus your time and energy

Some of you will recognise this concept from Steven Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Effective People. We all have a ‘circle of concern’  of varying proportions – the things we care about – and then a smaller ‘circle of influence’ – the matters within our concerns that we actually have direct control over. When you are proactive and responsible, you focus your efforts and attentions in your circle of influence.

A lot of it is becoming aware of where you are placing your energy and attention Click To Tweet

In reality, this is easier said than done. A person needs the skill of mindfulness to do it, which I will talk about more in a second. But still, everyone can learn to do it.

3. Divide the problems you face into categories

The problems we face can be divided into three categories:

  • Direct – problems involving our own behaviour
  • Indirect – problems involving other people’s behaviour
  • No control – problems we can do nothing about

When you are proactive, you put all three problems in your circle of influence. That sounds a bit unrealistic, so to give you an example:

Let’s say I have the direct control problem that I am spending too much time on Facebook, not enough time on my writing. A proactive response is to change my habits.

Let’s say I have an indirect control problem at work; my colleague is behaving unprofessionally, and that is affecting my work. Putting that in my circle of influence means changing how I influence that situation and person. There are a multitude of strategies I can adopt, for example, empathy or confrontation. I put my energy into looking at solutions, rather than complaining about their behaviour.

And what about changing ‘no control’ problems? That is when the skill of acceptance comes into play. I accept the things I cannot change, leaving me free to focus on the things I can influence.

4. Make and keep commitments

At the heart of developing true influence is your ability to make and keep commitments. Little by little, we prove to our brains and eyes that our values are paramount over how we feel/our particular moods.

This is why developing your personal integrity is key to developing the capacity to choose your response.

5. Notice when you start to think the problem is ‘out there’

That thought is the problem. It is keeping you victimized.

The role of mindfulness

Taking responsibility has to be combined with practicing mindfulness. That is because you have to be able to observe the space between stimulus and response, and that is what mindfulness teaches us to do. Without knowing that there is a space, how can we choose our responses?

Developing responsibility, practicing mindfulness, knowing your values - they are all related Click To Tweet

I wrote about how to practice mindfulness here.

Summary

It is in ordinary life that we develop the capacity to choose our responses. Start right now. Become aware of how you view your problems and where you place your energies.

If you do, then you will not only improve your personal effectiveness a thousand times over, but nobody will be able to rob you of your peace of mind and happiness for long.

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