Recently on the way home from school my daughter recounted an incident where a classmate hit another student, and then said that it was a reflex to having her hair touched. My daughter shared that this “reflex” was out of her classmate’s control and an unfortunate consequence for the hair-touching culprit. “That is a reaction,” I said. “Not a reflex. A reflex is an automatic impulse that we do not have control over, like kicking your leg when your knee is tapped in just the right way. Hitting someone because they touched your hair is a reaction. A reaction that you in fact have complete control over.”

We debated this point for a few minutes as we considered other reflexes (like the gag reflex) and reactions to things that happen to us. Later as I thought further about the conversation, it reminded me of the many times when I have heard adults say “I just can’t help it. That’s just how I am.” Or “I wish I could change the way I react, but I can’t.”

One manager I worked for early in my career made it clear that when he was on deadline, everyone had better steer clear. As our publication date drew close each month, he would become harsh, curt and sometimes, downright mean. “You know I’m on deadline,” he would say. “This is how I get, don’t take it personally.” But many of his colleagues did take his rude behavior personally and they learned to work around him and keep him out of the loop. His reputation as a difficult manager followed him wherever he went in the company.

We all make choices every day about our behavior and our reactions to others’ behaviors. We can make a choice to continue what has not worked or we can make the choice to stop unproductive or hurtful behavior. When we make choices that build relationships, repair damage we may have caused, add deposits to the emotional bank account, and engender trust, we are more effective. And that pays off in more and deeper connections with the people in our lives, more productive interactions, and greater success.

If you are still stuck in believing that you are unable to break a bad habit and change a behavior, that in itself is a choice you are making. Instead:

  • Take responsibility for how you communicate, how you interact with others, and how you handle difficult situations. Own up to the things you do that get in the way of your effectiveness – and embrace the behaviors that are working for you right now.
  • Be open to feedback from others so that you can be called on behaviors that others do not appreciate. Invite others to share their perspective on what you do that works and what doesn’t.
  • Notice and reflect on the things that trigger your negative behavior. What’s the hammer to the knee that causes you to react the way that you do? How can you avoid or diminish the trigger? What can you choose to do in reaction to it?
  • Be patient with yourself when you fall back into patterns and reactions that are unproductive. Rather than beat yourself up, forgive yourself, apologize as necessary, and try again.
  • Get support from people you trust and who will be honest with you. Ask them to call out when you are effectively practicing new behaviors and when you may be slipping into old ways of interacting with others.

What behaviors are you continuing to exhibit that may be hindering your ability to have effective working relationships? What have you chalked up to “reflex” or “part of your DNA” rather than focusing on changing for the better?
Please leave a comment to share.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

For help in adopting more effective ways of interacting with others, contact Robyn at

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