Stimulus / Response Gap

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.”

Viktor Frankl.

Neuroscience tells us there are a few hundredths of a second between an incoming stimulus and our response. If it is something strange and threatening, we “choose” fight, flight or freeze and if it’s familiar we categorise and choose the most familiar available response that uses the lowest amount of mental energy. The more training and practice we have, the greater number of potential responses available to us, the less we have to think, and the less energy we use. All very efficient..

Except when we find ourselves in deeply unfamiliar territory.

“In the middle of the road of my life… I awoke in a dark wood… where the true way was wholly lost…

John Kuzava included this quote from Danté’s Divine Comedy in one of his many excellent and provocative posts earlier today, and it led me to wondering – when does our training make us blind to reality? At what point does an event that should have us on full alert, or running for the hills, get moderated by training to be conveniently categorised as a familiar and safe event that can be dealt with through familiar processes?

Here in the UK today we have a live experiment going on as the ruling party has woken up to a bye election result to find themselves in the smoking wreckage of a reputation they thought they owned. As I listen to excuses and reasons by the leaders as to why this is a “one off” event due to “trivia,” I cannot help but wonder how the world looks to them as they look back at the trail of damage caused by a cavalier relationship with the truth, and the reality of voter’s lives going back to Brexit and before.

The same is true though of course for most of our businesses, and, all to often, us.

In our busy lives, governed by deadlines and performance appraisals, it is much easier to categorise the dangerously unfamiliar as something essentially benign so that we are not interrupted in our work. Groupthink at scale. If it gets really uncomfortable, we have plenty of scapegoats from illegal immigrants to the performance of public services whose budgets have been decimated by years of ”efficiency savings” and whose resilience, as individuals and as organizations, in little short of awesome. Blaming others has become an art form.

Lengthening the stimulus / response gap is hard work. Finding the space to suspend judgement, reflect on what might be happening, and considering options before we respond is enormously energy hungry, scary, unfamiliar and probably requires that we drive a bulldozer through all those neat standard operating procedures and assumptions that govern our role descriptions and performance parameters.

Lengthening the gap requires regular practice, in the company of others who value us for who we are, not our job titles, or status, or our “network value.” I’ve written before that our futures are determined by our relationships with those few people we are close to, and that amounts to a few handfuls, at best.

There are a lot of us finding ourselves in a dark wood right now, where the true way is truly lost. As John Kuzava says, it is only by embracing the pain of the reality we are in that we can find our own path, and recognise that perhaps the one that has brought us to being lost is not the one we should be following into our future. It is a good time, as the year comes to a close and we have time with family, to reflect on that.

Here in the U.K. we face a torrid few weeks as Omicron does its thing, until it burns out in the first few months of 2022. Wherever we are, it seems certain we will face similar conditions – a huge spike followed by a steep fall as some form of herd immunity is established. Only the timing will differ.

We can use that time, not to fret about missed parties and disrupted business plans, but to practice lengthening that stimulus response gap, so that as the chaos of the pandemic makes way for other disruptions, we find own path.

If we can do that, the harsh medicine that is the pandemic will work its magic.

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