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?” Brazilian author Paulo Coelho noted “Your problem isn’t the problem. Your reaction is the problem.” In the book Your Reactions Are Showing J. Allan Petersen went further and noted “The person who reacts with anger and bitterness is being controlled by the person who offended him. How often do we let people control us in our daily life? You may be surprised to learn that your reactions to the situations you face daily may say a great deal more about you than your actions say.”

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.

Actress Mariska Hargitay worked intentionally on her reaction when she got rejected for the show ER. She prepared so well for her audition the casting agent said she was too good for the role. Instead of blaming the casting director, she leveraged her connections, did not take no for an answer, and went the extra mile to explain why she was the right actress for the role. It worked. Her work on ER helped launch Mariska’s career where she would eventually go on to star in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for over 20 seasons. She could have easily moved on to the next audition; or she could have reacted in a negative manner. Instead, she tempered her reaction and in so doing altered her career trajectory. Remember, how you respond matters. Your awareness to stimuli matters. You matter.

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

  • How often can you respond with intention?

  • How often do you help others see the space between stimulus and response?

  • How often do you leverage your response for personal growth?

  • How often do you recognition that your reaction to a situation is the problem more so than the situation itself?