Some years ago my colleague Pam Fox Rollin offered a simple piece of advice that has stuck with me: Slow down for yellow lights. As a rule of the road it’s so critical to insuring our safety that you'd think it would be easy to apply it in other domains of life, and yet so often we don’t. There are so many signals telling us to slow down that we fail to acknowledge. We don’t see them, we don’t understand them, we’re too slow to hit the brakes (or we hit the gas instead), and inevitably we suffer the consequences in one way or another.
We say the wrong thing at the wrong time. We alienate or upset someone without intending to. We make an impulsive decision that we later regret. Or we simply miss an opportunity to express ourselves and connect with someone in a more meaningful way because we’re racing ahead. So what yellow lights should we be looking for--in ourselves, in others, and in a given situation?
Of particular importance are any signs of a threat response, often known as a “fight, flight or freeze response.” This can include shallow or rapid breathing, an elevated heart rate, faster or louder speech, and various physiological symptoms of anxiety or distress: sweaty palms, a pit in the stomach, tension at the back of the neck.
A related sign is difficulty focusing on a desired object. Managing our attention can be an arduous task under the best of circumstances, but under duress we may find ourselves unable to direct our focus for more than a few minutes or even seconds. This can involve being drawn in by an absorbing distraction that we’re trying to avoid, or being repulsed by an unpleasant duty that we put off repeatedly.
Paradoxically, one of the most important signals to slow down is feeling the urge to hurry. We may sense this in our speech patterns, as noted above, but this should also be interpreted quite literally when we’re in the midst of a task, preparing to transition from one activity to another, or in transit (particularly while driving.)
We may be able to directly observe in others some of the signs of distress or urgency noted above, but another important signal is the use of imagery or metaphors. Whenever someone uses vivid language to describe an experience, a feeling or a state of mind, they're telling us something important that may be easy to misunderstand. The value of these figures of speech is that they allow us to express ourselves both eloquently and concisely, but there’s always a risk that our interpretation of a given image or metaphor will be different than the other person’s, and we’ll assume we know what they mean when we actually don’t
It’s also essential to look for any signs of vulnerability in others, which can take a multitude of forms, from admitting uncertainty to disclosing traumatic experiences. The common thread is that expressions of vulnerability typically evoke significant and complex emotions, from mild embarrassment to a deep sense of shame. It’s usually quite challenging to acknowledge and explore these feelings directly—it feels awkward and uncomfortable, which is one reason why we tend to ignore or rush past them. But doing so almost always presents an opportunity to have a deeper, more meaningful interaction and further develop our relationship with the other person.
In the Situation
Several situational factors can serve as useful signals to slow down, both in the moment and in advance of an anticipated experience:
Timing: There are certain times that generally lend themselves to suboptimal interactions, and yet we often pursue difficult conversations at these inopportune moments. A hurried transition, such as when we’re moving quickly from one event to another. The last few minutes of a meeting. The first few minutes after we arrive home. The very end of the day, as we’re winding down and heading for bed.
Topic: Certain topics are inherently fraught and should be approached slowly and with care, when the emotions they evoke often cause us to rush in heedlessly. A good guideline is David Rock’s SCARF model—any topic involving status (or power or influence), certainty (i.e. the likelihood of future events), autonomy (our own or the other person’s), relatedness (i.e. the sense of interpersonal connection or distance) and fairness is more likely to trigger a threat response in one or both parties.
Relationship: Similarly, certain relationships come freighted with past history or contextual factors that we should view as cautionary flags. And again, Rock’s framework is a helpful guide—any relationships involving significant differences in status, certainty (i.e. predictability of behavior), autonomy, relatedness, and fairness (i.e. a shared sense of what is just or right) is more likely to trigger a threat response, and we’d be well-served to slow down when we encounter these people.
So what steps can we take to slow down? What does this look like in practice?
Expand Our Awareness
Perhaps the most common reason we fail to respond to yellow lights is that we simply don’t see them. They occur outside the range of our conscious awareness, in part because our capacity to notice physiological and environmental cues is limited and may be insufficient to our needs. The key is raising our awareness and enhancing our ability to sense these signals in the moment. One way I often describe this process is “lowering the waterline”—dropping the barriers that make it harder to sense what’s happening in ourselves, in others, and in a given situation.
The single best way to expand our capacity for discernment is cultivating a mindfulness practice, such as meditation. We often view meditation as a potential source of stress relief, and it can serve this purpose for some people. But I find it more helpful to view the practice as a workout that exercises our ability to manage and direct our attention. Similarly, regular exercise and sufficient sleep enable us to be more attuned to our bodies and to our perceptions of others and the world around us.
Emotions are significant factors in our decision-making and reasoning processes, although that’s not to say that they’re unerring guides to thoughtful action. Emotions serve as an efficient biasing mechanism, enabling us to process large amounts of data that would otherwise require great lengths of time to assess if we were relying solely on logic. But as NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux notes, emotions are a “quick and dirty” signal, and while we benefit from their speed, this very quality also means that on occasion they propel us forward when we’re trying to slow down.
Efforts to suppress our emotions are often counter-productive, increasing the intensity of a given feeling or focusing our attention upon it. And emotions aren’t subject to willful control—a good thing, as their ability to interrupt conscious thought allows them to serve essential functions, alerting us to changes in ourselves or our environment that may represent opportunities or threats.
But we can manage our emotions and their intensity, making it easier to slow down when necessary. This process begins with being better able to sense our feelings, including a heightened awareness of their physiological manifestations, as noted above. Next steps include being able to label our feelings accurately and clearly (a richer emotional vocabulary can help) and expressing those feelings more fully, which can involve reflecting on them, writing about them, and talking about them, not only before and after challenging interactions, but also in the moment. And this process isn’t limited to our own emotions—we can help others better manage their emotions by creating opportunities in the relationship or the group culture to acknowledge and express feelings more fully.
Create More Space
Finally, our efforts to slow down are often impeded by a lack of spaciousness on our calendars and in our psyches. We hurry from one event to the next with insufficient time to wind down, calm ourselves, and prepare for what’s coming. We’re engage in magical thinking about how much can be accomplished in a given amount of time, and we over-stuff our meeting agendas and our to-do lists. And we fail to block out time necessary for open, unstructured reflection, which means that we’re often rushing into important interactions without having engaged in any serious thought about the issues at hand, let alone the situational factors noted above. When we’re operating in this mode it can feel impossible to slow down.
Few of us have the ability to simply put an end to these practices—they’re often a function of larger environmental factors that we can influence but can’t control. But we often have more agency than we imagine, and it’s important to recognize when we’re truly incapable of exerting influence and when this perspective is a form of learned helplessness.
Here’s a simple example that had a powerful impact on me over a period of years. When I was working full-time at Stanford, I realized that the most direct route back to my neighborhood in San Francisco was far more hectic and stressful than a slightly longer route that added 10 minutes to the trip but allowed me to arrive home in a much better state of mind, in part because I was treated to scenes at Ocean Beach like the one below. I’d been prioritizing efficiency and blowing through a host of yellow lights, when what I really needed to do was prioritize the quality of my experience and slow down.
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Stoplight photo by TheTruthAbout. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.