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  • Writer's pictureSherelee Clarke

How to respond when you are triggered: 5 chairs, 5 choices

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

By Gaynor Word-Smith

Image courtesy: PWA Rome

When we think of leadership, we tend to think of the leaders within our communities, ranging from politicians to clergy, sporting personalities to entrepreneurs, university professors, doctors, nurses to heads of departments, heads of schools, teachers.

If you think that leadership does not apply specifically to you, I would like to encourage you to think again.

If you are a parent, a grandparent, an uncle or an aunt, you are a leader by default because you are placed in a position to guide, influence and lead the future generation. Likewise, if you are a friend, a sibling, a cousin, a colleague, a school or university student, you have the opportunity to guide, influence and lead your peers – the current generation.

As an individual person, you are in a unique position of leadership too, as you alone are responsible for leading your thoughts, words, decisions, behaviours, emotions, habits, direction in life. In turn, what you do and say, and how you choose to behave, has an impact on others around you. Being a leader in this sense, is about making a contribution on a conscious level to the success and wellbeing of everyone in your circle of influence, both at home and at work and within the wider community.

Louise Evans is a behavioural coach and specialist in cultural diversity management and global leadership. She believes that we each have a responsibility to create positive environments in the everyday spaces and places that we occupy with others. In her book, ‘5 Chairs 5 Choices: Own Your Behaviours, Master Your Communication, Determine Your Success’ and this Ted Talk, she offers us the ‘5 Chairs’ as an impactful perceptual positioning method to help us master our own behaviours and manage the behaviours of others.

Imagine 5 chairs: red, yellow, green, blue and purple. Each chair is represented by an animal to show the characteristics inherent in each i.e. jackal : attack; hedgehog : self-doubt; meerkat : wait; dolphin : detect, giraffe : connect.

Red Chair : Jackal : Attack

The Jackal is clever, cunning, enterprising and opportunistic. Jackals know how to outsmart others, but this approach does not help us win friends and influence people. The Red Chair is where we misbehave the most. When we sit in this chair, we love to complain, blame, punish and gossip. The supreme game in this chair is: TO JUDGE.

In this chair, we are playing the I-am-right-therefore-you-must-be-wrong game. We see what is wrong with others, and we think our job is to correct them, to ‘police’ them, to show them the error of their ways, to show them the right way aka my way!

Mother Teresa once said that the more time we spend judging others, the less time we have to love them. Constantly judging others, also means we have less time to love ourselves. Even the Old Testament advises us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Yellow Chair : Hedgehog : Self-Doubt

Hedgehogs like to hide and are wary of people. When we sit in this chair, we shrink ourselves into a little spiky ball and we try to protect ourselves against what we perceive to be an evil, cruel world. The Yellow Chair is where we play the victim, where we throw a pity party and we allow our fears to overwhelm us. Fears of being disappointed, fears of disappointing others. Fears of rejection. Fears of failing.

In the Yellow Chair, we engage in negative self-talk like “I cannot do this. No-one believes in me. I feel like an imposter. I am not smart enough, rich enough, pretty enough, handsome enough, popular enough, strong enough”. From this position, we are never enough, we harshly judge ourselves and we are unkind to ourselves.

Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we all experience self-doubt from time to time. When you become aware that self-doubt is creeping in, the question to ask ourselves is: “What can I do with this self-doubt?” We have choices: Do we give in to our fears and allow a downward spiral into a negative self-talk cycle? Or do we use this self-doubt and initial flow of thoughts as flashing indicators to highlight where personal growth is most needed?

Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said “The ability to observe ourselves without judgement is the highest form of intelligence”. Being able to do this requires us to practice mindfulness and meditation by focusing on the present moment, to learn to see our thoughts as separate from ourselves, to learn to detach our opinions from people or situations, to simply observe without judgement. To quote William Shakespeare’s Hamlet : There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Green Chair : Meerkat : Wait

Meerkats are always scanning the environment and are incredibly vigilant animals. We become observant, when we choose The Green Chair. From this position, we are mindful, we are self-aware, we are aware of others. We stop. We pause. We wait. We think. We take a deep breathe. We are conscious. We are present. We are in the moment.

It is helpful to use W-A-I-T as a prompt for What Am I Thinking? What Am I Telling myself?

In this chair, instead of judging someone else’s behaviour, we ask ourselves “I wonder why that person is behaving that way? What is happening for them right now? ” Friedrich Nietzsche said “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

When we choose the Green Chair, we are non-judgemental and we are genuinely interested and curious about others. This position is empowering because it allows us a ‘space’ between our thoughts where we can choose the direction in which to lead our thoughts and words and actions. We can choose how we are going to respond.

Blue Chair : Dolphin : Detect

Dolphins are intelligent, curious, playful creatures who are excellent communicators. Who doesn’t love those dolphin characteristics that the Blue Chair embodies?

In this chair we choose wisdom and intelligence. We have the courage to look very closely at our own behaviours under a microscope or magnifying glass. We are curious about our own flaws and blind spots and we learn to recognise them. We become self-aware in this chair. We know who we are and what we want to achieve. We know where we are going, we are assertive communicators and we have the courage to walk our own truth. We look after ourselves in this chair by creating personal boundaries. We don’t throw our power away in this chair as we do in the Red and Yellow chairs. In this position, we are in a continuous growth cycle, we recognise our own potentiality and we become empowered with this knowledge.

Lao Tzu is known to have said that “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power” while Aristotle was crystal clear about the starting point: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”.

Purple Chair : Giraffe : Connect

The Giraffe has the biggest heart of all land animals, as well as the longest neck. It has incredible vision, can see further, and takes in the ‘bigger picture’. Giraffes are a symbol of aspiration, inspiring us to reach for the highest branches, to stretch further than we thought possible, and to believe in our own innate abilities and potentialities.

In The Purple Chair we display empathy, compassion and understanding. We do not fall into our own ego traps because we have learned to not take things too personally. We keep our ego in check through practicing self-awareness; accepting that to be human is to err; seeing mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow; being humble and having the courage to apologize when we occasionally stumble. The intention in this chair is to stay connected whatever happens.

In this position, we think before we speak. We listen to people, we hold people in our presence, we care about them. When we ‘step into someone else’s shoes’, we try to understand their motivations, demonstrating empathy and a generosity of spirit.

Abraham Lincoln once said “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” If something or someone ‘triggers’ us, it is usually a flashing indicator that there is something here to learn about ourselves. This chair offers an invitation to look at other perspectives, to embrace other realities, to embrace diversity, to become tolerant. The most important questions in this chair become “What is important for this person in front of me? Is there something I am not seeing?”

How do we translate the 5 Chairs, 5 Choices into daily life?

Our challenge in everyday life is find the balance between our thoughts, emotions and actions. There are times when things go well, and there are times when things do not go that well. How do we : ü prevent our thoughts and emotions from tripping us up? ü avoid falling into the ego trap? ü respond appropriately to emotional triggers? ü avoid choosing Red and Yellow Chair behaviours of ‘attack’ or ‘self-doubt’ which we will later regret? ü ensure we are operating from the Green, Blue and Purple Chairs where we are more open, more rational, more intelligent, more thoughtful?

Choose the Green Chair

The next time we feel triggered by someone or something, whether it is our child, our parent, our partner, our friend, our colleague, our neighbour – remember the 5 Chairs, 5 Choices. Choose the Green Chair and work your way up to Blue and Purple from there.

Before you react, make a decision to STOP and W-A-I-T. Ask yourself What Am I Thinking? What Am I Telling myself? Think carefully about your words and choose how you will respond.

I will finish with the words of Viktor Frankl from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Teacher Leadership Mentoring and Life Coaching. Personal and Professional Development.

Gaynor is a teacher educator and mentor facilitating personal & professional leadership wellbeing outcomes for teachers.

Reach Education Ltd

Reach. Teach. Lead.

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