5 Uniquely Human Skills For Mastering the Space Between Stimulus and Response

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To many people, cats are cuteness personified…so many people, in fact, that by 2015 YouTube had over 2 million cat videos! But no matter how amusing they are, I’m glad that I’m not a cat. Cats, like all other non-humans, are mastered by their environment, reacting to stimuli and immediately responding. They sense food, or danger, or a pretty young feline, and have automatic responses…which, for the most part, helps guarantee their survival. But automatic responses are not always a good thing, especially in our human society. Responding to stimuli with responses of anger, jealousy, or sexual desire could easily get us in trouble. Fortunately, our developed brain allows us to pause in that gap between stimulus and response…and this is a critical part of what it means to be human.

In September of 1942, the Jewish doctor Viktor Frankl and his wife were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Under control of the Nazis, he would be moved from camp to camp, including infamous Auschwitz. By the time the Allied forces liberated the camps, his father, mother, brother, and wife would all be dead. In his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, he recounted his observations and thoughts in the terrible, inhumane conditions, in which every aspect of his life seemed to be controlled by cruel people who sucked out the spirit and life of many prisoners. He found the one area over which he had absolute control, however, was the gap between stimulus and response. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”



The human brain is bigger for a reason—it has the ability to pause and consider things before making a response to a stimulus. We have the freedom to choose our response. In that gap, we can apply five uniquely human capabilities to reach a better response:

  • Mindfulness
  • Self-Awareness
  • Imagination
  • Independent Will
  • Conscience


Mindfulness is the ability to focus, directing our conscious attention, engaging all of our mental and emotional faculties to determine our action.

Self-awareness is the ability to stand outside of ourselves; to realize that we exist as a unique being in our environment, and that we have the power to control our actions.

Imagination is the ability to see multiple possible realities in any situation. It’s the ability to project ourselves into “what if” scenarios.

Independent Will is the strength, the motivating power, that drives us to make an appropriate choice in the gap.

Conscience is the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, and weigh between the different choices available.

Thankfully, we don’t have to be slaves to our environment. We don’t have to be victims to circumstances. We don’t have to just sit idle and react. We have the choice to engage those uniquely human abilities, those soft power skills, to be proactive, to change the world around us, and to engage others in making change.  The more we develop our soft power skills, becoming aware of our unique faculties and exercising them, the stronger we will become.

(Note: Some of the terms reflect those used in Dr. Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which provides further insights into the subject)

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Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

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