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Everyone has had those moments when they acted without thinking. A person’s child was running at the pool, and they fell and hit their head. The frightened parent starts yelling at the child. A coworker makes a teasing comment about how tired a person must be after hosting a family reunion. The person snaps something insulting back because they actually spent all weekend fighting with their father. A person comes home to find that their new puppy has chewed up the couch. They start screaming at the dog. When a person acts without thinking, they are reacting. They do not think about the long term consequences of their actions or how their reaction will effect those around them. Reactions are normally defensive. People who are reacting often feel, at least subconsciously, like they are either at a disadvantage or uncomfortable. They snap at coworkers who accidentally stepped on the person’s insecurities. They get angry at their children for accidentally breaking things, or they use anger to cover up the fact that they were frightened and helpless when their child got hurt. Such reactions are natural, but they are emotionally driven and can easily hurt those around the person. Even though they are understandable, reactions often do more harm than good in the long run. 

If a person thinks through the consequences of their actions before doing anything, they are responding. When a person responds, they are still spurred to action by an external event. They did not proactively decide to do something. They are answering another person’s actions with their own. Responding, however, is far more logically driven than reacting. For example, a person’s child breaks a vase by accident. A reaction would be to yell at the child and focus on the broken vase. The child likely feels hurt and ashamed and maybe even a little afraid. The parent is also likely to feel guilty and ashamed after they have finished getting their anger out. The child has probably not learned anything except what mom or dad looks like when they are angry, and the parent has at least temporarily worsened their relationship with their child. A person who responds instead of reacting, however, will likely take very different actions. The first thing they will do is check to make sure the child is not hurt. Did they step on any pieces of the broken vase? Did it fall on them? Did they cut their hand trying to clean it up? The next thing they would likely do is figure out why the vase is broken. Did the child trip over the rug and knock the vase onto the floor when they stumbled and tried to catch themselves on the table where the vase stood? Were they running around the house after you told them not to and banged into the table as they came around the corner? Did they deliberately break the vase because they were angry at their parents for refusing to take them to the county fair? The parent who responds would then let this information influence how they treat their child. A child who tripped is, after all, not responsible for breaking the vase at all. No punishment is needed. A child who broke it by accident might need a time out for not listening. A child who broke the vase deliberately, obviously, needs slightly harsher punishment.

Reactions and responses can also lead to the same actions, but the motivations may be wildly different. A person may refuse to give money to a homeless person, for example, as both a reaction and a response. If the refusal is a reaction, they may have refused to give the man money because he scared them or his dirty state disgusted them. The person is driven by their emotional response to the man. The person who refuses to give the man money as a response, however, may have refused because they have seen the man use the money he earned by begging to buy drugs. Similarly, a person who reacts and a person who responds may both tell a coworker off for making inappropriate comments. A person who is reacting, however, will tell the coworker off because the comments made them feel uncomfortable and angry. A person who responds, on the other hand, will tell their coworker off because they know that such behavior does not belong in the workplace, and they know the coworker will continue to make such comments until someone tells them to stop. Both people take the same action, but the reasoning and motivations behind those actions are very different. 

Learning how to go from reacting to the world to responding to the world is not easy. The trick is rather simple to explain, but putting it into practice is not something that comes naturally to everyone. The key to turning a reaction into a response is to pause. Most people have probably heard of the old trick of counting to 10 before speaking when they are angry. While that is a rather cliché example, the basic concept is correct. Reactions come in the split seconds after a person faces the stimulus. A response comes a few seconds or minutes later once the person’s brain comes back online. The fact that the reaction comes first is a defense mechanism, but it is also the reason that so many people have said something cruel to a loved one and regretted the words the moment they left their mouth. Responses come almost as naturally as reactions, they just come second. As such, a person who wants to respond instead of react needs to simply take a deep breath and let the urge to react pass. Then, they can act on the response that comes after the reaction.

Responding instead of reacting is obviously easier said than done, but this intentional behavior will help a person cut down noticeably on regrets and face the world with a more centered mind and a greater sense of control. They will be less likely to feel as if they are at the mercy of outside forces because, even though they cannot control what happens, they can control what they do in response. As wise men have said for millennia, “he who conquers himself is greater than one who conquers a thousand enemies.”