Stop Reacting. Start Responding.

We’ve been spending the month of July exploring what we can learn from philosophy to live a better life.

Much of what we’ve learned so far has been about adjusting our outlook and mindset in order to get more out of whatever situation we happen to be in at any given time. I want to stick with that theme today, but I’d like to zoom in on one particular issue that tends to be problematic for people.

If we want to live a happier life, we need to recognize the difference between responding and reacting.

Responding and Reacting

Responding and reacting are very similar concepts.

An outside force acts upon you. Something unexpected happens. Someone says something mean to you or critical of you. You face unexpected challenges.

Your next move after that is either a response or a reaction.

A reaction is instinctive. It is often instantaneous and it is the move you make without thinking. A car comes flying around the corner and you shove your friend onto the sidewalk.

A response is more calculated. It is a conscious decision. It means that you took at least a moment to think about your options and then made a choice.

While reacting is obviously the better option in life or death situations, responding is more beneficial the rest of the time.

When Reactions Hurt More Than Help

Reacting is in our nature. We survived in the ancient days by instinctively reacting to threats. If you didn’t have strong reactions, you were weeded out of the gene pool.

Like many of our biological instincts, however, it is a much less valuable skill in the present world.

Reactions are necessarily short-term decisions. You are instinctively trying to survive in that moment. You are not thinking of the consequences.

Responding allows you to take a step back and think about the big picture.

Saving Your Relationships

This is especially valuable in relationships.

Your reaction is all about that one moment. But if you are interacting with another person, you will probably need to interact with them again. Reactions are not intended to maintain strong relationships because they don’t take this into account.

In reacting, we are prone to making comments or taking actions that are hurtful to those around us.

Think about arguments with a significant other. When you are just reacting without thinking, you are more likely to say something that will hurt their feelings.

As far as reactions go, this is a success. The other person walked away hurt and you “won” the argument. But when we step back and look at the big picture, this isn’t a win at all. We’ve damaged our relationship, hurting both the other person and ourselves.

So how do we respond more and react less?

Respond More. React Less.

For me, it starts with the mantra.

Respond. Don’t react.

Remind yourself of that. Remind yourself of the difference.

This is my shortcut to mindfulness in this little area. It forces you to think about what you’re doing. It helps you catch yourself before you react. It allows you the opportunity to recognize when you are reacting emotionally and need to step back.

If you’re not sure whether you are responding or reacting, take a deep breath. This sounds like trite advice, but it helps. A deep breath allows us to inject a little bit of time, weakening our desire to react strongly. It helps slow our pulse and calm down our emotional side.

So stop. Breathe. Think.

Respond. Don’t react.

Join the Conversation!

Do you agree that the distinction between reacting and responding is important? Do you have instances where reacting has backfired? Do you have any tricks for responding rather than reacting? Let us know in the comments!

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