React or Respond?

Two words that sound very similar describe how we might reply to things that people around us might say or do – we might react or we might respond. Yet there is a big difference between the two words, both in how we reply and the consequences of our reply. Consider the example of a doctor saying that our body is reacting to medication or responding to medication. The meaning is much different. When we find ourselves in a conversation or situation that raises the emotions, we need to be intentional in order to achieve positive results.

To react to comments or actions of those around us is generally a defensive or emotional reply. Sometimes a reaction is described as saying something “without even thinking about it.” This is because we don’t think about reactions. We hear or see something that trips an emotional trigger within us. In an emotional reaction our limbic system, that part of our brain responsible for protecting us and controlling our reflexive actions, jumps in and blurts out a reply. The limbic system is responsible for the flee, fight, or freeze reaction to perceived threats. If the limbic system of our brain senses anger, fear, humiliation, or other negative emotions in the comments or actions around us, even if not intended to be so, it springs into action and reacts.

Reacting tends to be a subconscious reflex. The impact of a reaction is often to escalate the emotional tone of a discussion. A reaction by one person prompts an emotional reaction from the other party.

To respond to comments or actions of those around us is to provide a more thoughtful reply. A response is the result of the brain taking control away from the limbic system and giving control to the prefrontal cortex, the cognitive or logical part of the brain. This move to thoughtfulness is intentional and is a result of developed emotional intelligence. In a response we take into account the emotion of the other party, we consider the intent, and we construct a more logical response. The words of a response might even be the same as a reaction but they are offered in a different context and without the negative emotion.

Responding is a conscious and deliberate action. In a response you are more likely to maintain your integrity, remaining true to who you are. The impact of a response is to draw the other party into the conversation and develop a more positive dialogue and outcome.

To respond rather than react, we could follow these seven APPLIED steps:

Awareness – Recognize the emotion that rises up within us. This requires exercising our emotional self-awareness to sense when our limbic system is taking control.

Pause – Interrupt the tendency to react without thinking by taking a deep breath or taking a few minutes.

Perceive – Intentionally engage the prefrontal cortex by thinking through the possible explanations of intent from the other person and alternatives for a constructive response.

Loosen up – When our limbic system jumps into react mode, it reflexively begins arming our body for confrontation. Energy flows, muscles tighten, fists clench. It is difficult to convince the other party that we want to have a civil conversation while our body is saying otherwise, so we may need to intentionally relax a bit.

Inquire – Seek clarification. One of the effective ways of engaging our cognitive brain is to ask questions and explore the situation with the other party. Rather than jumping to a conclusion, first gather more information.

Envision – Think with the future in mind. What is the outcome that best serves the long-term vision and goals of both parties? Structure a response that provides a benefit to both.

Dialogue – Rather than firing back a salvo of reaction, respond with a thoughtful comment to draw the other party into a dialogue. Seek to understand and be understood. For the other party, being understood meets a deeply human need and draws them into relationship, the opposite result from what a reaction would cause.

A response is more likely to produce a positive outcome while a reaction is more likely to cause a negative outcome. This strategy applies to our leadership but can also be applicable to marriage, dealing with our children, or any relationship. Train yourself to respond, rather than react.

How strong is your emotional self-awareness? Are you able to thoughtfully respond or do you often get sucked into reaction mode?

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