We spend a lot of energy and time agonizing over emails and texts people send us, or the things that people post on social media. And a lot more energy and time firing off a reply and perhaps fixing the damage that results from our haste, or even crafting a thoughtful response.
Intuitively, we know that taking a pause can help us respond, rather than react, to whatever triggered our emotions. But the pause serves another purpose: it gives us space to investigate the trigger.
We rarely look at the actually trigger.
Why Email Triggers Us
The trigger to our emotional reaction is not the email (or the Facebook post or the text message).
By itself, the email is innocuous. It’s just words. Email itself has no tone.
The best writers write with an unmistakeable clarity of voice. But even their words are destined to the same fate as all others: tone is supplied by the reader.
When we read, we read in the tone that matches our energy in the moment. Reading and listening use the same part of the brain, because reading is in part an auditory exercise. (This is why people who say they are listening while also reading something else are lying. It’s impossible to read something and fully listen to something simultaneously).
This the challenge with written communication: a writer of an email (or other written communication) can’t control the tone because the tone is supplied by the recipient.
What Gives a Message its Tone
A message’s tone is influenced by the conditions in which the recipient is reading your message — both external and internal.
External conditions include factors such as the recipient’s physical environment, what else is happening in her life in that moment, whether she is standing still, walking, or sitting, whether she is in a private place or a public place.
Internal conditions include the recipient’s mood, emotional state, how her body feels, whether she slept well the night before, and thoughts on her mind.
Implications for Senders and Recipients
This is important for us to remember both as senders and receivers of written communication.
As the sender, we must be mindful that no matter how carefully we construct our sentences, the recipient “hears” the message through the filters of these external and internal factors. The challenge with email is that we don’t control the conditions under which our message is read.
As a recipient, we must remember that we are reading a message through the filters of our current conditions, in a tone that we supply. We will read the same message differently depending on whether we are feeling calm and safe or under attack and fatigued.
When we find ourselves feeling triggered by an email or other written message, it’s important to remember this: the trigger is not the email itself.
The trigger is always internal.
The email is a catalyst that stirs up what’s already there. It’s like the baking soda that causes the cake to rise.
We read things with our tone. We read things with our energy.
The System Works As Designed
In some respects, pausing after the trigger is too late. The reason we must condition the pause is to help us avoid the trigger in the first place.
Our culture has forgotten the power and importance of the pause. We spend all day rushing, trying to “knock out” dozens of little things that all feel very urgent and important (although they often are neither urgent nor important). We try to get our “2-minute tasks” “out of the way” so we can focus on the bigger things.
This constant rushing through life, trying to clear as much as possible from our plates as quickly as possible, signals to our nervous system that we are under attack. And our bodies and minds react accordingly.
When we fall into the trance of reactivity, it is important for us to remember: this is how the system was designed.
We may not be in a “bear in the woods” situation, but we are being attacked. The attack comes from a culture of “respond immediately,” “do it ASAP,” “fit as much in as possible.”
Our mind understands that we are just trying to “get things done.” Our bodies are in fight or flight response. Sit on a bench and watch people walk by. You can see it in their physiology. Hunched shoulders, heads down, hips locked up, moving quickly. Fight or flight.
In this physiology and mindset, we read everything through the filter of fear.
The Power of the Pause
The ability to stop ourselves before we react in a way that could hurt us or others is a potentially lifesaving skill. Conditioning the pause is a fundamental skill.
Pausing can help us avoid the mistake of firing off an email in reaction. It can also help us respond more constructively and avoid drama.
But the pause isn’t just so we can gather our thoughts and craft a more constructive response. That’s a good start, of course, and it’s better than not pausing.
Don’t get me wrong — pausing before responding to an email always helps. But wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t get triggered at all — or as often?
When we pause, we create the space to step back and investigate the actual trigger.
Seeing the Patterns
Life is about patterns: understanding that we have patterns in how we do things, seeing those patterns, and changing those patterns.
What’s going on inside me right now that is causing me to react this way?
What are my current physiological and environmental conditions?
Awareness of our patterns gives us the power to control whether we get triggered.
Pause Before the Trigger
We cannot control when other people send us messages. Nor can we control when other people read what we send to them. But we can control when we read messages, the energy with which we read them, and the energy with which we respond.
Just because we can access email on our phones does’t mean that’s always the best place to read it. Just because we can check from anywhere and at any time doesn’t mean that every place and every time are the best times for us to check.
Before you check your email or social media, check in with your external and internal environment. Notice how you feel. Assess your mood. Ideally, don’t enter the inbox unless you are in a calm place.
Even if you feel like you must check email in that moment, taking this pause before you enter your inbox will help you become more aware of how your mood impacts the meaning you give to the messages.
Test it for a day or a week. Report back and share your results in the comments. Your willingness to share will help a lot of people.