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Choose Your Response Carefully


"Panic causes tunnel vision. Calm acceptance of danger allows us to more easily assess the situation and see the options."

-Simon Sinek


I'm on a walk with our dog, Bingo, while a biker is coming toward us is screaming at us, "Get out of the way! Move! Move! Get out of my way!"

I can't believe it. I've never heard someone so rude. I know bikers can have a bad reputation, but this is intense. Are you kidding me!? I am out of the way. Bingo and I are on the side of the trail - on the opposite side of the trail. We can't move over any further. What an ass!

It's 5:30 in the morning, it's dark, and on the trail near our house there are no lights so without a flashlight, you can usually see pretty good once your eyes get used to it. I prefer night vision and not using flashlights because it's more enjoyable seeing with night vision. Instead of a flashlight, I have an armband with a flashing neon red light so bikers and runners can see me.

And while I don't like using white lights because of my night vision, many bikers commuting in the dark have no problem with using as many of the brightest white lights they can find. I guess it's something about safety...

As Bingo and I are walking, this biker appears ahead of us coming towards us. I am, of course, blinded from both the light on his handlebars and the light on his helmet. As he gets closer I move to the side of the trail and have Bingo sit while he goes by. I turn away so I can protect my eyes.

That's when he started yelling at me.

Since he is a complete jerk, I yell at him, calling him certain four-letter words.

That's when tells me, "I'm so sorry about that! I saw your dog's eyes getting reflected and I thought you were a deer I was trying to scare away."

It turns out when I moved off the side of the trail I turned my flashing armband away from him so he had no idea I was there.

Who's the ass now?

put space between stimulus and response

You Are the Center of the Universe

You are the center of the universe. You are the only one who experiences what you experience and, as a result, your perspective is different from everyone else's. In other words, you're egocentric. Although this has grown to be viewed as a bad term, it's quite literally true. All the experiences in the world happen within your perspective. Even if you watch me fall off my bike, that event was experienced in your visual field.

As a result, we tend to think everyone is getting in our way. But in fact, the opposite may be true; perhaps it is us getting in someone else's way.

we are all egocentric - the center of our own universe

So Is Everyone Else

Alright, so you are the center of your own universe. You have your own subjective experience and everything in the universe happens within your awareness. But so does everyone else. It's not just you and me. Every single person experiences the world as if they are the center of the universe.

everyone else is the center of their own universe

Judgment Fears

Because we live at the center of the universe, we feel like everyone else experiences what we experience. We tend to live our lives worrying about what others think of us. We believe everyone notices what we are doing and what we are going through. If everyone notices us, it stands to reason that they might judge us.

We don't like to be judged. The good news is that nobody actually does notice; not really.

we think others notice us but they don't

It's impossible for me to notice you because I'm too busy worried about what you are going to think about me. Even though it doesn't feel like it to us, this fear of being judged runs both ways.

others are too busy worrying about what we think of them

We All Have Basic Needs

This is where I pause to talk about your needs. We all have basic human needs that we're constantly trying to meet. My mentor, Ted Klontz, says that every human behavior is a desperate attempt to satisfy one or more of our basic needs.

There are many needs that fit below these broad needs, but at a basic level, here are our most basic needs. Safety, or security, is about making sure we survive, have food, water, and shelter, of course. But, this could also be the feeling of being safe in social situations, having a job to pay the bills, or feeling like you won't be judged. Belonging is about having a tribe. This is where herding behavior comes from. We would rather be wrong with our friends than right by ourselves. Autonomy is our need to chart our own path and make our own decisions. Self-expression is our need to be heard and understood. Finally, Significance, or purpose, is our need to know the big picture.

six basic human needs, safety, belonging, autonomy, self-expression, purpose

Looking for Needs

I bring up needs because we all create strategies (this is subconscious) to meet our needs. Not having our needs met triggers feelings and emotions. Often, if we are stressed out, our animal brain creates a strategy that isn't good for us in the long run. This is true of others, as well.

When people seem to be "getting in our way," so to speak, it's easy for us to assume they are jerks - just like I did with the biker. However, if we can train ourselves to look for the feeling, and even the need, behind others' words, we can often gain a better perspective of the situation. This is the basis of Nonviolent Communication (here is a great intro to NVC).

Don't listen to words. Listen to needs.

look for the feelings and needs behind the words

Assume Positive Intent

Everyone is at the center of their own universe, but we still have a choice about how to think about others. Do they mean well or are they jerks who are out to get us?

If you're driving in your car and someone speeds in front of you in a lane that ends, do you speed up to get in front of him, or do you ease up and let him in front of you? Maybe he has been unemployed for six months and this is his first job interview since being let go. Or maybe he's a jerk. Maybe he's from out of town and doesn't know the roads. Or, he doesn't like people who drive the kind of car you drive.

Everyone is living their life from inside their own universe bubble; it's not likely that they are intending you harm. From your universe bubble, assuming positive intent is more healthy for you, even if you're wrong in your assumption.

assume positive intent

Learning to look for the needs and feelings that lie behind words and actions helps us put space between the stimulus and our response. The more time that passes before responding gives us a better chance of acting in a more rational way - a way that we're less likely to regret.

emotional responses are less likely over time

The Choice is Yours

So the choice really is yours. You get to choose what to focus on. It's up to you where to shine your light of attention.

With those you don't know, assuming positive intent keeps you from overreacting. Don't be like me; don't yell obscenities at a biker. Assuming positive intent will keep you from being too angry which, as a result, will make you a happier person.

With loved ones, assuming positive intent helps you see the truth behind what your loved one means. After all, is it more likely that your loved one is trying to harm you or that there is a misunderstanding?

what's more likely - a loved one hates you or a need isn't being met?

Taking a step back to think about our reactions will pay us dividends. It's not always easy, but it is worth it. This works with shopping. It works with conversations with your loved ones. It works with interactions with people you don't know. Cliches are cliches for a reason; they work. So visualize someplace you like (that is, your happy place), count to 10, or take five deep breaths. By doing something to increase the space between the stimulus, or trigger, and our response, we'll be rewarded with more positive interactions and fewer emotional responses that get us in trouble.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

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Related Money Health Reading:


Sam Harris: Waking Up

Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication

Simon Sinek: 2016 eMoney Summit Keynote Speech Simon Sinek: Start With Why

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.


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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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