Imagine you are in the car, driving along happily, when from out of nowhere someone cuts dangerously in front of you. You are forced to brake quickly to avoid an accident. How would you react? Like most people you would probably react in one of the traditional ways: a heavy hand on the horn, a tirade of abuse, the flashing of headlights, or all three of the above.

This typical reaction to a typical situation is a classic example of what we call an automatic response. It’s a ‘default’ behaviour: we don’t consciously think about honking, swearing or flashing headlights – we just do it.

Now think about how, at some time in the past, you’ve approached a conversation about your performance with a manager you didn’t get along with. Did you go in with an open mind, or were you on the defensive from the word ‘go’? Did you find yourself fairly quickly defending yourself, regardless of what the manager said? Most of us have been in this situation at some stage.

What is happening in this situation is very similar to what is happening in the road-rage scenario. The difference in the workplace is that instead of horn-honking, the automatic response to being challenged or criticised is defensiveness, denial, blame or justification.

In both these cases – the car and the workplace – there’s a good chance that, on later reflection, you recognise that your behaviour was ultimately unnecessary and unhelpful. But you also wonder whether it is really possible to avoid these situations. After all, the responses are automatic, aren’t they?

The truth is that it is possible to change your responses to both these situations, but doing so can require a substantial amount of work.

The first step is to understand what is going on here.

In our work we draw a line – the ‘line of choice’ – between the default, automatic responses to challenging situations and the more emotionally healthy option of a thoughtful and constructive response to them. We say that automatic responses are ‘below the line’ while constructive responses are ‘above the line’.

Notice that we use the word ‘choice’ here. For ultimately there is a personal choice to be made between operating above or below the line, even though it may not feel like it as our hand hits the horn or the excuses start flowing.

The tricky part is that making that choice takes some training and practice, especially when you consider that making that choice has to be done very quickly. American psychotherapist and author Tara Bennett-Goleman calls it the ‘magic quarter second’: the time between when our brain absorbs a situation and our body reacts to it.

Remarkably, despite such a momentary timeframe, there are ways we can train ourselves to operate ‘above the line’ no matter what the other driver (or the manager, for that matter) causes us to do or say. In part two of this blog topic we’ll look at how that can be done.