Events Don’t Have to Control You: Using the E+R=O Formula

Photo: Marvin Meyer @Unsplash

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” Jon Kabat-Zinn


Beware of quick fix formulas! But, there are tools that can help us to manage our reactions to external events that can shift our emotional and behavioral responses.

The E + R = O (EVENT + RESPONSE = OUTCOME) formula, which we picked up on from Jack Canfield’s – The Success Principles is effective and practical but not a quick fix tool that can help you to make changes in the way you work.  Why? Because to use it, you have to change the way you think.  Doable – yes! Easy – no! Here’s how it works.

Defining the Event

The Event can be anything.

A feeling, a co-worker’s comment, the traffic, a misunderstood email, a layoff, the weather, your partner’s behavior, anything.  In other words – anything and everything that is outside of your control to change (fix, manipulate, control, etc).  Let’s stop right here. If you made a list of all the possibilities that can fall in that category, you’d have a huge list of most of  your life’s situations and circumstances.

Getting this part right is the key to using this “formula” successfully. Because on that list will be many things that are very important to you. And because they are important to you, they have many of your values and beliefs invested in them. On this list of very important things will also be the “events” that push your buttons and really trigger you emotionally.

The key is working with your thinking.  Thinking about your thinking is the first stop on this train. How do I think? When this ___ event happens, what do I typically think? What happens next? What do I feel in response to these thoughts? What do I do in response to these thoughts and feelings?  In many cases, you will see that your reactivity to certain “events” is part of a habituated pattern of thinking on your part.

The brain likes stimulus, but it loves certainty, so habits form creating neural networks from repetitive behavior (count thought as a behavior). There is abundant research showing that when we consciously change behavioral “strategies” in our daily lives, we can rewire the brain and establish new patterns of activity.

Scientists define this as  “neuroplasticity” which is the ability to alter (positively and negatively) the neural networks in our brains. The big takeaway – and the most important part of your work using this formula – is to grapple with the all-important question of what you believe is in your control and what is not.

When you are working with clarifying this – it is valuable to make another list while you’re at it – the what’s in my control list.

Understanding the Response

OK, now we are getting to where the action is. This is where you get to make choices – and more choices, sometimes minute by minute, about how you want to RESPOND to life’s events.  This is not about how you responded in the past (though that might be constructive information) it’s about how you CHOOSE to respond in the moment or in the future. This is your choice point.

Regardless of what unfolds in life’s events (and sometimes this can be a hard and a long process) you get to choose how you are going to respond. You are in the driver’s seat. You have the freedom to choose.

There are three components to your response – your thoughts, your emotions and your behavior.  Too often we start by trying to change our behavior first before we have gotten our thinking process lined up. Understanding your common emotional triggers can give you a blueprint for how you typically respond to certain events. What’s also important to understand about your response – (root of word – responsibility) is that you are 100% willing to take response-ability for your response.

For many of us, that can be a real challenge. Our critical inner voice may kick up a fuss if we start taking too much responsibility. It can backlash with thoughts and old beliefs like,Why should I have to always be the one who changes?“Life’s dealt me a hard blow and I am entitled to be angry.” “This is completely unfair (and it might be) but why should I act fairly in response?”

This simple little formula packs  a punch. To implement it successfully, you have to do an honest self-assessment and reappraise your beliefs. You may need to activate your deeper values and access feelings that enable you to respond differently like: empathy, confidence, optimism, courage and calmness, to name a few.

The Outcome

We use this formula (personally and professionally) all the time.  Our clients say it can challenge them and help to shift their perspectives (a key to changing behavior).  But sometimes they want guarantees.

“Well, I’d be willing to change my behavior if I thought it would impact the way my co-worker acts.”

“I’ll take responsibility for my actions, but how do I know that my partner will care that I’ve changed?”

Here is the real deal. There are no guarantees.  The word outcome is just a word. We can never really know what the outcome of a situation, despite our best efforts, will be. This is once again, a control issue.  We can only respond to circumstances with our full self-awareness and as broad a perspective as possible as to the external factors we face.  Since we are always getting outcomes (usually without applying much conscious thought) this formula gives us, at least, a better opportunity to help shape the outcome positively.

One weakness of this formula is the implication that if we apply even our ideal response to an event – a positive outcome will magically unfold. One savvy commenter to this article wrote that every outcome creates a “state,” not a specific result. We agree. We believe that successfully applied, our R (response) to an E (event) could result in an emotional state that contributes to an O (outcome) that we want vs one that we don’t want.

Too many of us are spending our time and precious energies trying to control what is not in our control to “fix.”  This is not  to say that we should not use our knowledge and determination to positively influence the circumstances we meet, that we believe need to be changed.

This is our choice. But first, let’s be crystal clear about what we can actually “control” and what we cannot, how we use our energy, the effects of our impact externally – and most important – internally.

Thanks for reading! 

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
Join us here if you’d like to receive our occasional general mailings!

Photo: Marvin Meyer @Unsplash

Leave a Reply