How often do you recognize the space between stimulus and response?

Today is July 31 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you recognize the space between stimulus and response?” Anyone navigating the chaos has had to learn how to respond to any number of stimuli in their personal life and professional career. Each day affords us hundreds of stimuli to respond to from an interaction with a coworker, to an exchange between a family member, or a situation at a store.

The most common stimuli are what people say to you, what happens to those you love, and external events. While you are unable to control any stimulus, you most certainly can control your response. And doing so requires that you recognize the space between stimulus and response. Those who translate their dreams into reality work hard at developing the appropriate response for a given stimuli.


In 1969 Stephen Covey was on sabbatical from Brigham Young University to write a book. While wandering through the stacks of a university library in Hawaii one day he pulled down a book from its position on the shelf, opened it, and read three lines that dramatically changed his life.


“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”


These three lines would eventually form the foundation for his work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Often attributed to Viktor E. Frankl, the exact origins of this quote remain in question.


Covey never identified the publication in which he first read those three lines back in 1969 but researchers suggest two possibilities: Thomas Walton’s 1917 The Use of Motives in Teaching Morals and Religion or Rollo May’s 1963 essay “Freedom and Responsibility Re-Examined” published in a collection called Behavioral Science and Guidance: Proposals and Perspectives. In The Use of Motives Walton wrote:


“Personality has three main parts: (1) the receiving portion (receptors) that looks out on stimuli (attention and appreciation are its great functions); (2) a responding side (effectors) that looks toward behavior or response; and (3) that which lies between stimulus and response whose function is to correlate and adjust behavior to stimulus. This third region is where our real personal values lie. This is where we grow most.”


Some five decades later May would write in “Freedom and Responsibility Re-Examined:”


“Freedom is thus not the opposite to determinism. Freedom is the individual’s capacity to know that he is the determined one, to pause between stimulus and response and thus to throw his weight, however slight it may be, on the side of one particular response among several possible ones.”


In 1989 Stephen R. Covey published the bestselling self-help book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which included a discussion of Viktor Frankl who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

“They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Victor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.”

Covey reiterated the point above several times in the book, but he was not presenting a quotation from Victor Frankl. Two examples from the world of business involving Katharine Graham and Ed Stack illustrate the need to create intention with a response in times of crisis.

Katharine Graham, leader of The Washington Post in 1971, moved through her own fears by vowing that the free press would not cave to government demands to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. She then helped her editors and journalists do the same, as the newspaper began printing a series of revelatory articles and excerpts about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Graham could have easily had a response of hiding in the shadows, bowing to the pressure to not print such volatile information, or burying her head in the sand ignoring both stories. She did none of that and instead responded by publishing the Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories and in so doing would make the Washington Post the most famous newspaper on the planet.

A few days after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February 2018, Ed Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods announced his stores would stop selling semi-automatic weapons like the one used in the event. Stack knew the company would take a hit. In his book, he said about 65 employees “quit right away in protest, and more followed in later weeks.” Sales also dropped in the quarters thereafter, as the company predicted. It also destroyed about $5 million worth of rifles in inventory to make sure they did not get back on the market.

A few months later, Dick's pulled firearms and hunting accessories from 10 stores as a test. That went well: Overall sales increased at those stores. The company then pulled guns and ammunition from 125 additional stores in March 2019. In a March 10, 2020 press release Dick's Sporting Goods announced its plans to nearly quadruple the number of stores without guns and will stop selling them at 440 additional stores this year, escalating the company's methodical elimination of firearms from its stores.

As Nancy Koehn wrote in "Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis" an April 3, 2020 Harvard Business Review article "real leaders are not born; the ability to help others triumph over adversity is not written into their genetic code. They are, instead, made. They are forged in crisis. Leaders become ‘real’ whey they practice a few key behaviors that gird and inspire people through difficult times."

How you respond matters. Your awareness to stimuli matters. You matter.

How often do you recognize the space between stimulus and response?