Ever kicked yourself for sending an email, or raising your voice in anger? How did that work out for you? I’m betting not good. Nothing got solved, relationships weren’t helped, in fact things got worse.
So you learned your lesson right? You’ll never do that again.
But you did didn’t you? Welcome to the club.
We just can’t seem to stop impulsively responding to recurring annoying situations. We keep taking the bait.
Why is that?
An imperfect metaphor
Taking the bait implies we are like a fish taking a chomp at that tasty fleshy, silver sliver attached to a hook he can’t see.
The metaphor works because there is some trigger “bait” that gets us to react (“take a bite”) that does indeed get us into an undesirable situation (“hooked”). The situation is intentionally set up as a trap by the fisherman for the fish.
But the metaphor breaks down in three key ways.
- We often react to situations that are not intentionally created by someone else, at least not with the purpose to “hook” us. The situations and behaviours we react to are often themselves just reactions to earlier reactions that may or may not have had at their start (if you could find it) an intention to hook someone. Often they exist in a perpetual cycle of people reacting to bait-like situations.
- The fish is trying to get something good (food), while we are often just trying to stop something bad. Often people are defending their sense of self, their personal dignity, or their sense of security.
- We often take the bait knowing it’s not going to work out well in the long run. Yet we can’t seem to stop ourselves
A better metaphor is seeing red
Like a bull reacting to the matador’s red cape, (he would react to any colour by the way) we react similarly (passionately and without thought) to certain situations.
The bull doesn’t learn and keeps reacting to the very same situation with eventual catastrophic results. Very much like us. Our spouse keeps nagging about some complaint (themselves taking the bait) and we keep letting it get us upset, or worse reacting with harsh words or even violence.
The consequences of ‘taking the bait’
Which brings us to the human consequences of taking the bait. In some cases it could be the same as for the bull. People do get killed for inappropriate reactions to certain situations, but for most of us the results fuel conflict, and kills relationships, opportunities and careers
How to not take the bait
So how do we avoid the fate of the bull? Remember the Groucho Marx joke about the guy who complains to his doctor that his elbow hurts whenever he bends it, and the doctor replies, “Well stop doing that.” (I think that’s as profound as it is funny.)
That’s also the answer to how to stop taking the bait in your life. Stop doing that!
But how do we stop doing that? How do we take effective action to resolve conflict, clear up mis-understandings, or simply stop contributing to an unhealthy situation by not responding at all?
Create a powerful context for your day
The great thing about recurring situations is that you know they’ll happen again. Whether it’s selfish drivers, traffic, a nagging spouse or an impatient boss.
Like radar warning the pilot of turbulence ahead, you can take corrective action to either avoid it, or brace yourself.
How you respond to any situation often depends on the context you’re in when that situation occurs. If your context is frustration, anxiety, anger and mistrust you will respond in kind. Similarly, changing your context to compassion, forgiveness, purpose, and helpfulness etc. will allow you to respond in kind. Which do you prefer?
Begin a daily practice of creating a powerful context for your day. This is a bit easier if you are religious, but you can do it just as powerfully even if you’re not. Remind yourself about the kind of person you committed to being and anticipate how your day is going to play out.
Use prayer and your faith
The best technique to reduce your likelihood of “taking the bait” is to start your day with a reminder about the kind of person you say you are. If you are a religious person, say a Christian, remind yourself of Christian values and behaviours. How would a true Christian respond?
Remind yourself that “taking the bait” is the same as giving into temptation because it pulls you away from being Christian.
The great thing about being religious is you have a wealth of material in your holy books (bible, Koran etc.) to help you create a powerful daily context, to set reminders for who you are and how you will demonstrate that to the world.
A Personal Credo
If you’re not religious this could come from a personal credo or manifesto which functions like your own personal constitution like the American one. It tells you the kind of person you are, and what you value. It contains statements like, I am kind, compassionate and helpful, or I am patient, understanding and helping others. If said or read every day it will eventually create a living mindful context for your actions during the day.
Practicing reading your personal credo or manifesto (daily) will remind you of what you will and will not do—how you will be (or behave) in the coming day ahead—because it reminds you of the choices you have already made about the kind of person you are in life, and the legacy you wish to leave behind.
Anticipate your day
As part of your daily practice of reminding yourself of who you are, take some time to anticipate your day. The things that “hook” you are often the same things day in and day out: the traffic and selfish drivers to and from work; the tone of voice or attitude of a co-worker; an unfolding situation at the office; the last-minute requests from a client etc.
These are all things that happen every day or that you can anticipate will happen. Before you begin the day, or before you walk into that meeting, or before you open your inbox and start reading, anticipate the things that often happen and resolve to not let them hook you. Resolve beforehand to always respond consistently with your values.
Script (as in a movie) how you will respond, and respond that way. Action! Don’t be afraid to yell “Cut” at least to yourself when you catch yourself taking the bait. You’ll feel the “hooked” reactions in your body and you can immediately start taking some slow deep breaths and stop reacting negatively.
Anticipating your day allows you to prepare, and relax; to put yourself in a better context to be the kind of person you say you are, to achieve the results you want. Do you prefer retaliation and revenge, or peace of mind and meeting some greater objective?
Mandela and W.Bush
When Nelson Mandela was released he didn’t take the bait from many of his fellow UNC leaders to retaliate against the government in kind. Despite all the bait before him he chose to stay focussed on the S.Africa that could be.
In contrast, the U.S (with George W. Bush) and now France, have responded to terrorism by taking the bait, and responding with fear and violence; which strengthens the terrorist cause and weakens the U.S. and France by having them abandon their own values.
Taking the bait can never be an effective strategy for the long-term relationships required to bring peace and harmony to the world, and to your life.
Where are you taking the bait?
Well, stop doing that.