It was an accident on the side of the road that we couldn’t look away from.
Besides spawning TikToks with mega pints, bees, and a Heresay song that made me laugh out loud, the Depp-Heard trial made me think. Quite a bit. About relationships. Communication. And the tendency to stay in a relationship when we should’ve left much, much sooner.
There was just so much humanity in it all. Yes, we all know there was some bizarreness, too. But man, there was a whole lot of humanity.
Communication is hard. Relationships are hard. They’re even harder when we (or others) struggle to handle thoughts and emotions.
I kept thinking about this:
What people say or do can irk us — “raising our emotions” and “making” us defensive and reactive.
But hey — do a person’s words or behavior “make” us respond? And if (or when) we react with any kind of negative emotion, does that reaction help us or hurt us?
And finally, this (like I said, the trial made me think A. LOT.): Should we even expect ourselves to be able to listen, think, and respond with calm?
Or, because it’s “a part of being human,” is it okay to react and show anger, defensiveness, or other “negative” emotions? (*Is responding negatively “allowed” in healthy relationships?)
Reacting with emotion…
If course, emotions are inextricable from our human experience. But emotions can be positive or toxic — and anything in between.
There’s a continuum, a line, a tipping scale of emotions. I can be slightly miffed, bent out of shape, a bit angry, quite angry, or enraged.
Here’s the question:
Is it acceptable for me to react with miffed, snarky words… or talk with a bite in my tone that says, “You’re so stupid”? Is that okay to do?
React vs. Respond
My belief on “react vs. respond” continuum comes from my dad, who quite literally was an expert in communication, traveling the world to help leaders learn how to respond well. He particularly worked with teaching leaders how to deal with conflict in a healthy way — and how to not react.
Following in my dad’s footsteps a bit, I taught interpersonal communications for many years at university and then was the head of communications curriculum at another university… so again, yeah, I think about this stuff a lot.
So…. Does the way we react or respond matter?
Our responses to others matters a megaton.
The truth: Our negative response will often, if not always, damage relationships — at least, to some degree.
Reacting with a “negative” emotion such as defensiveness or anger (shown by a raised voice, snarky tone, cutting off the speaker, or aggressive body language, words, or behavior) does affect relationships… and future communication between the parties.
The damage is real.
We are affected. It can affect a little… or a lot. But it does affect us.
The negative outcome…
Our own negative reaction to someone’s words or actions — not a thoughtful response, but a REACTION — will, just like scissors cutting the stem of a flower, remove positive connection to that person. Your relationship IS affected.
Some part of your communication dies — and it can take a long time for a new-trust seed to grow into the close-relationship plant again, just sayin’.
Shouldn’t you let words just “roll off your back,” like water off a duck? Isn’t “ignoring it” a good way to deal with someone’s emotional reaction or explosion?
“Letting it roll off the back…”
Especially with those who we live with (day-in-and-day-out), we can (and should) let some of their negative reactions roll off our backs. Because responding poorly is what we humans sometimes do, it IS good to extend grace… for errors.
But patters… patterns are a different thing.
A pattern of reacting — of putting up pokey-pins of defensiveness, brandishing knives of anger, or throwing daggers of disdain toward another… of mocking, profanity, and put-downs… of, when things aren’t going their way, raised voices with vitriolic blame.
That pattern is toxic.
Even someone repeatedly cutting you off (when they feel defensive) — disallowing you to get a word in edgewise… that’s toxic, too.
This is the stuff with JD and AH that made us cringe… maybe more so than normal because we’ve seen it, felt it, or lived it.
Whether in the home or workplace, particularly if reactive responses repeat, the damage can take a long time to heal. Such reactions carry the power to damage communication and relationships long term. OY.
If you’re on the receiving end of aggression — or you’re with someone who keeps conflict going (for whatever reason) — please, get out. Some want to change but won’t get help. Some have no desire to change and won’t get help. Some go to counseling, and deep issues that need attention are identified… but change doesn’t happen.
Removing ourselves from that equation is fine. And good. And healthy.
By the way, we can’t make anyone do anything. Of course. We know that. We can only take care of ourselves.
So let’s talk about our own response — and how not to react.
Four Simple Ways to Get in the Respond-Well Headspace
Check it out. Whether a director, writer, videographer, or movie star — we can all use this…
1. Know your states.
Not California to Maine states — we’re talking emotional states.
You and I are always in a state: our internal mental and emotional space that’s positive, negative, or neutral (aware and without judgment).
Positive states hold happiness, joy, excitement, anticipation, satisfaction, and relief.
Negative states hold frustration, anger, defensiveness, fear, and sadness.
Neutral states are where we’re aware, mindful, and not assigning emotion — we’re simply observing. (*Especially in conflict or triggered emotionally, we want neutral.)
Emotionally intelligent people understand their different emotional states.
2. Be aware.
At any given moment, emotionally intelligent people can identify the state they’re in.
Most of us don’t think about states. We go through the day simply acting and doing. We don’t “check in on ourselves.”
When something “sets us off” — and our internal emotions flare — the EI person recognizes we’re reacting. EI-ers mentally “step back,” examine the emotion while it sits “outside of themselves,” and choose to respond.
It’s the neutral response, and it’s hard to do.
Particularly when in a tense conversation, in the thick of a meeting that’s not going well, or when picking up an unexpected phone call, being aware and naming your state is critical to responding well, not reacting.
And if you’re interested in how our emotional responses work — and how to identify them in yourself and others — get the book Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman. It’s quite good.
The mind-body-emotion connection is nothing new. Tony Robbins talked about it eons ago.
Because our bodies are connected to our minds and emotions — deep breaths, relaxed muscles, and unclenched hands help to put ourselves in calmer states. Smiles and raised eyebrows have been found to put us into positive states. “Fake it till you make it” actually applies to changing your state — and according to research, it works.
Even a brief body change can make changes in the mind and emotions.
Through physical changes, we can step into a healthier mental space and respond instead of react.
4. “Talk back” to emotions.
In our heads, we cab firmly but nicely tell that emotion and reaction to shut up and sit down.
It’s tough. It’s a skill — and skills have to be honed.
“Talking back” to negative emotions is our weapon against emotional reactions that we’ll regret later. It’s our gatekeeper to self control.
I often told my grad students, “Great communication — where we move from reacting and ‘being our own worst enemy’ to responding and communicating well — starts in the words in your head — and ends with your ability to put yourself in a neutral space, to deal with your own reaction (or someone reacting all over you). It’s a practiced choice.”
The Depp-Heard trial recordings, videos, words, and more showed us boatloads about reacting vs. responding. The question is, will we take this very public reminder and turn it into a springboard for powerful private personal growth?
I vote for being aware of our internal state…
for using our physical state to focus our minds and emotions…
for talking back to the emotional reaction that wants to take over…
and for choosing to respond to others well.
Erin M. Brown, MA, MFA, is the author of 12 books (fiction, nonfiction, academic, children’s) and has been a professional writer/editor/ghostwriter of books, articles, pages, and curriculum for 25+ years, helping authors master story writing through seminars, coaching, and dozens of online courses. She has a terminal degree in Creative Writing, Genre Fiction, and has been a content writing expert/marketing director and storyteller for websites, videos, and multiple online programs for 20+ years.
Erin was also a university writing, communications, and leadership instructor (two universities) and Lead Communications Curriculum developer (for a third university), as well as developing multiple college writing curricula and programs.
Speaking to audiences on writing since the 80’s, Erin’s a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Authors Guild (AG), Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and Romance Writers of America (RWA). Erin has also worked with Hollywood A-Listers in story development for TV, has judged numerous book and anthology contests, judges manuscripts for SCBWI regional competitions, and has been a first and second tier judge for the Vivians/Ritas with RWA. Coffee mug or espresso in hand and surrounded by her collies, Erin writes from Michigan, USA.