I'm talking about the gap between receiving information and responding to it. It's a magic spot where, if you spend a little time, you can turn a negative situation into a learning situation. The difference, in my view between reacting and responding is how much time you spend in the gap. When information or situations are upsetting the gap is microscopic, near impossible to find. But you know it when you've spent time there - it's when you're telling the story of what happened to someone and you say something like "I was really good, I didn't react at all, I kept calm and said exactly what I needed to". You feel proud of how you handled a situation and you should!
So where's the gap? Well, generally I find it's after someone has said something to me and before I say something back. I find if I can remember to do a slow nod (to show that I've heard them) then that can be enough time to let the first reaction pass. I saw this at a mindfulness course I went on. As a group we would discuss our struggles with being mindful in our daily lives. After sharing our individual struggles the teacher would pause and do a slow nod before responding. It didn't matter what someone was saying, they did this every time, it was a habit they had created of pausing before speaking.
Some people on the course really struggled with the pause. They would rush in and say more things to fill the gap. In some cases it took a really long time before they gave up, let the gap be and allowed the teacher to respond. It was fascinating stuff to watch because I had never really stopped to think about instilling a practice in how I responded in conversations until I saw someone else doing it.
Sometimes the will to say the reactionary thing is REALLY strong, especially if what someone has said is offensive or hurtful. I find it particularly hard if someone is stuck in a "bitching" mode about someone else or a situation. You know when they are going on and on and you just want them to quit complaining and think about their role in the situation or at least start thinking about a solution? It's in times like those that the gap (if I can find it) allows me to move to a place of empathy. I try acknowledging how they are feeling and how hard the experience they had was. This can help to gently steer the person back to a place where they are feeling heard and accepted. That can be enough to allow them to move off the topic....sometimes.
So how do you find the gap? I find it really depends on where I am in relation to myself when the situation occurs. If I am stressed, unwell, tired, hungry, exhausted or overwhelmed in life in general then the likelihood of finding the gap or remembering to look for it is very low. So before you start on the quest to find the gap, check in with you. How you doing? I'm getting much better these days at recognising when I'm out of balance and for me, it often means rescheduling my calendar to make some room for some self care. This is especially important for parents. Spare time for myself does not fall in my lap - I need to elbow out the time and make it an appointment. Getting out of the house helps keep the call of children and housework at bay.
When I'm feeling good about me and life in general I find myself having these magic winning days. Days where I respond calmly to every problematic situation. Those are the days where tantrums from my children are greeted with empathy and big hugs instead of anger and frustration. Those are the days where you feel like you're winning at life and it feels that way because you are. Then there are the days where I am in a cycle of reacting to EVERYTHING and sweat the small stuff all day long. On those days, when I finally find 2 minutes of peace, I look back and see how I reacted to situations and how I could have responded differently. It's always so clear later on. The saying "hindsight is 20:20" is a bit dismissive in my view. Like it's not worth anything? Hindsight is very valuable. If you're able to see where you went wrong and how you could do things differently next time then that's a very important lesson. You're doing one step better than walking around angry at what happened and blaming everyone else.
Finding the gap can be difficult even when you are in a good space in your life. Mostly because rushing in and reacting has become a pattern in our lives. Remembering to pause becomes a practice. A mentor once said to me "the only way to stop doing something is to start doing something else". I think that's a very valuable insight because when you try to stop doing anything (smoking, eating sugar, watching TV) is does create a gap in your life and that IS a gap you want to mind. It's a gap that creates a discomfort much like the people who couldn't handle my mindfulness teacher's pause in conversation - you will rush in to fill it. That's why some people find they start eating more when they stop smoking for example.
So I suggest you stop reacting and start reflecting (as a replacement). The gap isn't a vacuum - it's a space where what is being received can be examined a little before you speak. It's about actively allowing what someone has said to land on you and giving yourself space to reflect on it for a few seconds before speaking.
The only way to start doing it is to start doing it. That might sound silly but I'm a huge culprit of reading countless "self help" books that mention many things you can start doing or stop doing in your life and, well, not doing any of them. You might be reading this blog nodding away, it all makes perfect sense on paper or on a screen. The real learning, however, is when you start living it. I'm not saying you should stop reading self help books but if you find, like me, you read one after the other without much change in your life it's because we forgot that reading about life is not the same as living it. It's another gap that we need to mind. The gap between our heads and our hearts. The gap between our thoughts and our actions. The gap between talking the talk and walking the talk.
So there are gaps to find and there area gaps to mind. Whatever you decide to do, the point is to do it and be gentle on yourself.
Lots of love
Bronwyn Bay (Gap Finder)
P.S. I highly recommend minding the gap in the London Subway.