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Stimulus and Response – The Love Affair

‘I love you, I really do’. He slides up beside her, his hands reaching out to take her face gently into the palm of his hands. His lips touch lightly onto hers and his eyes twinkle in delight.

‘I can’t live without you Stim, I really can’t’ His hands slide to the back of her head and gently move through the glossy blonde hair. Then strangely, he feels her hand on his chest as she gently pushes him away, before running her fingers through her hair to organise herself. She looks at him, her eyebrows dipping slightly.

‘You know I love you Res I really do, but I need to be honest with you…..’ He senses the rebuff and moves slightly away from her, but still holds her hand so she cannot move too far away. They are getting ready for a party, all old friends coming  together. It is a regular, relaxed, fun time with people they’ve known for years. She had been standing at the mirror, choosing ear rings when he came up and kissed her, his aftershave mixing with her perfume as they came close.

His face crumbles at her words. She has been a little bit off over the last few days, certainly not her usual loving, close, caring self. He tries to listen, but his heart rate has risen and he senses the  blood surging through his veins. Their love was beautiful, everyone said so – a whirlwind romance, wonderful to watch, a classic love at first sight, a match made in heaven. And now, living together after all these years, it had seemed perfect to him. Yet here in the bedroom, he feels a sense of fear and concern. He doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to speak, but he has to.

‘What’s the matter Stim’? The words come out slowly, quietly, tentatively. It seems wrong to even ask.

‘Look Res’ her voice is confident, sure, straight. She takes him over to the bed and pulls him down to sit on the edge, their legs touching. ‘I love you, just as I did when we first met. You are very special, we’re meant to be together for ever and ever I’m sure. I don’t want to be without you,  I really don’t, but …….’. The air seems to shift between them. Stim sighs deeply and squeezes Res’s hand. They’re both silent.

‘I just need a bit more space that’s all. Just a bit, not too much just a bit. I need to be my own person. I think you need to be too’. She can see he is trying to hear, but he seems close to tears as he looks at her.

‘I just want to do what is right for you, give you what you need, be there for you. I love you Stim I really do’. His voice is quiet, hesitant. He squeezes up tight to her, only to find her moving away again slightly, creating more space again between them. It feels wrong.  All of it is wrong and he wants to move to her. Yet no matter how he hates it, he stays where he is, because that’s what she wants, but he feels very uncomfortable.

‘Look’ Stim tries again. ‘We can continue on how how we are, but it will be the same and then, more of the same’. Res looks confused. ‘You know…. I do something, you respond in the way you always do. We know the routine and everyone around us does too. It feels like the same old, same old’.

‘But isn’t that good, you know predicable, comfortable….’? Res looks at her, his voice rising slightly as he replies. There is a fine line of sweat across his top lip and red patches are beginning to appear on his neck above his shirt collar. ‘Isn’t that how couples work, you know like in tandem’? He senses her irritation and stops, watching as she pushes herself up off the bed and moves away.

‘Okay, okay, what do you want’? He drops his head into his hands, so the words are muffled and indistinct. Inside he’s expecting disaster –  a break up, news of another man, divorce looming.

‘Just to try some things differently. So, there is space for something else to happen, rather than just the usual, what we always do. Something different’ Stim responds. Then she smiles. ’How about we practice tonight? You know, I do something and you respond differently, check yourself before doing what you might always do’. She winks at him, which is most disconcerting, because she has never in all their time together winked at him. It is  such a simple thing and he wants to react straightaway, or to say something to tell her that it’s just plain weird. He can’t stop the automatic reaction, his eyelid beginning to twitch. Instead though, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Which seems to take an age, but during that time he thinks. There is just the tick of the bedside clock filling the silence. He really wants to wink back, get them both in sync again, but he doesn’t. Instead, as ten clicks through his head, he pushes out his tongue and rolls his eyes. She bursts into laughter.

‘Okay let’s do this Ms Stimulus. Let’s go courting again, do some things differently at the party. See what happens to us and maybe to others tonight too’. He slips on his jacket and takes her respectfully by the hand. She is smiling now.

‘Thank you Mr Response, that would be lovely, very lovely. And we can count in the gap together. Ready to give it another go’? Her eyes sparkle at him. They both hold their breath, heads rocking to and fro as they go through the count. Then before Stimulus can stop him, Response is heading out of the door, taking the stairs two at a time, whooping and cheering.

Grahame Pitts – December 2020

Postscript:

This story comes out of a number of leadership conversations about habitual reactions. Sometimes simple everyday situations, sometimes tougher emotional loaded moments. Unless we check ourselves we can often respond in a certain way and in a way which we know is pretty predictable. This can be beneficial, we all know what to expect  from each other, but this habit can also limit us. So, a particular stimulus – perhaps a situation, a person, an emotion – can immediately invoke a particular response. Stimulus and response are powerful and almost symbiotically linked. Yet in all this, we may be missing larger, more interesting, opportunities.

How do we change our responses? By being aware of what is going on right in the moment. Then by creating a gap between the stimulus and the response. Actively working at stopping a habitual response – watching out for instance for those ‘yes buts’, ‘no that won’t work’ type of comments – by creating more space before responding. Perhaps, as in the story, using a count of  ten, taking a long deep breath. Maybe, just checking in with your heart and mind or sensing the reaction occurring in your body. Most importantly, doing something which stops you immediately reacting.

Enjoy pausing!

Some possible reflection questions:

  1. Where do you get into unhelpful stimulus response situations? At home, at work? Do you know what triggers them? Are these specific situations, or is there a reoccurring theme?
  2. Sometimes, can you give yourself a gap before responding? What method would work for you, giving you more time to respond with a different choice?
  3. Where can you experiment right now? What one place can you try this out in the next few days?
  4. And turning the model on its head – what new stimulus do you need in the coming months to create opportunities for new and different reactions?

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