Thursday, January 10, 2008

To react or respond?

I attended a teleclass on reacting/responding yesterday. When we react to something that involves us, we have an immediate emotional response that generally comes from somewhere in the past and is powerless. When we respond, we engage in an act of freedom that is rooted in the present and therefore has power.

As always, it comes down to a question of choice. When something involves us we can decide what kind of power to give the person or situation. Are we going to let it have the upper hand and react? Or are we going to use the situation as an opportunity to take conscious and deliberate action and respond?

I had an uncomfortable moment, let's say, a "cultural moment", like I did a couple of years ago when I attended a seminar on "Emotional Intelligence" at a WIN (Women's International Networking) conference. Coaching methodology, like the concepts behind emotional intelligence are clearly based in American cultural values, beliefs and ways of thinking about how the world works and as we use these very universally valid concepts, we need to be sensitive to their cultural base.

Americans (like a number of other, generally English-speaking, cultures) place emotional control very high on the value scale. For example, it is totally unacceptable to express a high degree of emotion (raising voice, waving arms energetically, getting up and walking out, loudly interupting) in a business meeting. It would not only be "unprofessional" but also be very disturbing to others. Emotional control is valued (and involves "response"). Emotional gut level "reaction" is not.

Hmmmm. For over half my life, I have lived in a culture that places emotional control a bit lower on the value scale. People can react quite "inappropriately" in the most amazing ways and in the most unbelievable places (TV programs for one) and maintain credibility. Fons Trompanaars tells a wonderful story in his book, "Riding the Waves of Culture" about cross-cultural misunderstandings in a meeting that involved a lot of emotional display by the Italians in particular.

While working in cultural exchange, directing a sales office for work and study programs abroad (mainly to the US), I often got passed the phone to hear out angry parents while they vented. They were reacting indeed, sometimes quite violently and loudly, even insulting my wonderfully dedicated and serious staff. I learned that with the Italians, reacting/responding was not a dicotomy, but a cycle. I would listen, sometimes saying absolutely nothing (what could I say really), until the venting phase was over. Amazingly (from my American cultural perspective), the parent would finish, sheepishly clear his/her throat and then we would proceed to calmly, logically, rationally work together to find ways to resolve whatever issue was at hand. By giving them permission to engage in an immediate emotional reaction (even if that was rooted somewhere in the past and was powerless), I gained their trust that I could listen (even to things that were not appropriate at all) and this gave us a common ground to be able to move forward.

When one particularly aggressive father (ok, we -- let's say actually our Spanish office -- had "lost" his 15-year old son on a University of Florida campus), in person, finally finished venting, I told him that we would work together to resolve the problem and become best friends in the process. We did. He gave me a ride to the other end of town while we laughed and chatted and I now call him for medical advice.

Go figure -- gotta love cultural differences, and give them our fullest respect.

React or respond? Hmmmm. One or the other, is fine for Americans but maybe we need to accept that the two can also function as a cycle, as is appropriate and acceptable in other cultural value schemes.

a domani,


Elizabeth Abbot said...

just checking that you can leave comments. Please do!!

Enrico said...

Congratulazioni on your new endeavour, I know you'll be a great coach!

Elizabeth Abbot said...

Enrico - thanks for your words of encouragement. In the end you will send me my first Italian client and I will be ready! buon anno. E

Jennifer said...

Congratulations. The course sounds like a wonderful opportunity for you.

Thanks too for this post.

The Happiness Zone: said...

I love reading your blogs, Elizabeth, because your entries nourish my two passions in life. I am a coach (in the U.S), and have a deep love for Italy. You open my eyes to a deeper understanding of Italy, that will help me to re-locate once I acquire dual citizenship.

Regarding the Italian parent's emotional reactions, I think most individuals would just love to be heard and listened to without judgements--with unconditional acceptance of his feelings. No agenda from the listener. It's so rare. I think that's one of the essential skills of an exceptional coach. You truly fit the bill.