“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

—Everett Dirksen


We have a saying in the Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) I teach: “The one with the most flexibility wins.” I’m not talking about touching your toes with your nose or doing the splits. I’m talking about being flexible in how you respond to any given situation.


Unfortunately, most of us are pretty inflexible because we react rather than respond in life. What’s the difference?


People who are reactors feed off their knee-jerk impulses. They react almost instantly and their reactions are based on their conscious or unconscious beliefs and biases. They say or do something without thinking, and their reaction is usually some type of fight, flight or freeze. Reactors make snap judgments about situations and rarely even listen to another person. In fact, they often begin their reaction long before anyone has done or said anything!


Someone who responds is different. They usually take their time—or at least a deep breath—and respond thoughtfully from a broader perspective. A responder is open and curious, not defensive. A responder remains grounded and in line with their core values but they are also flexible in their approach. When you deal with a responder, you feel like you are being heard and understood. A responder takes into consideration others involved and even the long-term consequences of their response.


Responders are flexible in that they have many options to choose from. Reactors do not.


So how does flexibility show up in life? In relationships, an inflexible person is hard to deal with and often judgmental or critical because anything outside of “the way things should be” is wrong to them. They often approach relationships with “my way or the highway.” Sticking to their guns, they refuse to lose arguments and almost never apologize.


A flexible person on the other hand is more able to flow with the tide. Rather than pushing their narrow definition of good and bad on others, they stay open, respecting diverse attitudes and ways of being. They seek to understand differences then find compromise. They don’t abandon their core values but they recognize that these values can be expressed in a variety of ways.


How about problem solving? When faced with a challenge, an inflexible person often reverts to “This is the way we’ve always done it.” They cling to tried and true solutions, ignoring or even ridiculing unusual or forward-thinking suggestions. When times change and old solutions are clearly no longer working, they are slow to adapt—or even refuse to adapt.


But flexible people view challenges from all angles, allowing themselves to come up with off-the-wall solutions that no one has proposed before. They listen to others’ ideas and build off them. They tend to stay on the pulse of what’s happening and, rather than fearing change, they welcome change and move swiftly to meet it. Flexible people are committed to their goals but stay malleable and open in how they approach those goals.


When it comes to self-identity, an inflexible person gets stuck quickly. Once they’ve established themselves as a successful attorney or an involved mother or a star athlete or a staunch Libertarian, they have a heck of a time if situations change and that identity is yanked away from them. They cling so tightly to old identities that they don’t even see the new possibilities that surround them.


Flexible people hold identities loosely. They change with the times and create new chapters for themselves when old chapters fade away. They’re more likely to recover and get back on their feet after a loss. They don’t resist or resent aging or families growing up or any of the natural cycles of life. They know that who they really are and their worth is based on something deeper than what job they have or the condition of their body.


Isn’t it obvious that a flexible person has an advantage? But how do we get there?


If you’ve recognized yourself as an inflexible person, here are some things to try:


Experiment with Alternatives: One of my favorite questions is, “How can I see this (or do this) differently?” It’s tough to use that question in the heat of battle when you’re first learning to be more flexible. Try it out on small issues first. For example, making breakfast in the morning: “How could I cook this differently? What else could I try besides oatmeal?” Or watching a co-worker do something you dislike: “How could I see this person differently? What good motivations might he have for that behavior?” Or how about when you dread an upcoming event: “How could I feel differently about this? How might this turn out to be fun or interesting?”


Engage opposite points of view: To support seeing or doing something differently, give yourself experiences out of the norm. For example, rather than discussing the same old topics with your same old buddies who have the same point of view, seek out someone who disagrees with you. Then listen, just listen, to what they have to say. Keep your mouth shut except to ask questions. Watch different newscasts or read different newspapers than you’re used to. Do your best to turn off your internal criticism. Just be curious.


Expand your horizons: Try watching different TV shows or movies that you wouldn’t normally pick. Shop for clothes or food in stores you wouldn’t normally go to. Listen to music you haven’t heard before. Pay attention to what you like or what is good about these experiences, not what you don’t like.


Travel: It’s not in everyone’s budget but travelling to different countries can give you a much broader perspective. If you can’t hop a flight to some exotic place, try wandering through different neighborhoods. Visit restaurants or events from different cultures, maybe try different places of worship. Do all of this with an attitude of curiosity, not judgment.


“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

― Albert Einstein



To your TOTAL empowerment!


Dr. Matt




Byline: Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of The Empowerment Partnership. Author of several books, Dr. Matt has trained thousands of students to be totally empowered using Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Huna, Mental Emotional Release® (MER®) therapy, and Empowerment Fit, a program that incorporates targeted mind/body/spirit practices to create optimal physical fitness and health. Download his free special report, Everything You’ll Ever Need to Know to Achieve Your Goals, LINK. To reach Dr. James, please e-mail him at info@Huna.com or visit his blog at www.DrMatt.com.


References: a 1961 Reader’s Digest article by Edison’s son Charles; according to Matthew Josephson’s biography of Edison