“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is power to choose our response” ~ Viktor Frankl
No doubt all of us, including me, have reacted at times in our lives when we should have responded. Upon reflection, we can often identify those events based on how we felt afterwards. We may have wished we hadn’t said something, or chosen a different tone, or had simply removed ourselves from the situation until we knew how to respond well. As adults, we all know the right thing to do. Yet, often our emotions get the best of us and we react – at work, at home, in the car, on social media, etc. Until we are shown, taught, or learn something different, we often don’t know how to control our reactions, or even recognize our behaviour.
So what is the difference between reacting vs responding?
A reaction is instinctive, based in the moment and doesn’t take the long term effects of what we do or say into consideration. While reacting in an emergency involving life and death where your survival is at stake is important, it’s when we react in everyday situations that we damage our relationships, and potential for a positive outcome. A reaction is typically quick, tense and aggressive, while a response is thoughtful, calm and non-threatening. A reaction typically provokes and perpetuates negative reactions.
When we react, we aren’t choosing. Rather we are allowing our reptilian (or instinctual brain), the oldest part of our brain, to take control. The reptilian brain is all about survival: movement, breathing, circulation, hunger and reproduction, territory, and social dominance. A reaction uses our reptilian brain, which is survival-oriented. Based on what your emotions trigger you to do, you act without really thinking through the consequences. This might turn out okay but often a reaction is something you regret later. When we choose to simply react to what occurs in our lives, we often behave defensively, such as bating or taking revenge, blame, scapegoating, etc. Stephen Covey defines the difference between reactive and responsive individuals as follows: “Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance. Proactive people carry their own weather with them.”
“Respond don’t react. When you react to a person’s negative comments or actions in an angry, overly emotional or aggressive way, then you are giving that person power over you. If a person can easily get a rise from you, then you are no longer in control. If you take a moment and respond in a calm, healthy, honest and real way, then you are in control. You are not allowing anyone to take your power away, or invoke a reaction from you.” – Maria Consiglio
A reaction is usually quick and typically:
- involves the reptilian/instinctual and the limbic/emotional brain.
- is emotional.
- involves speaking without thinking.
- is often tense and aggressive.
- creates conflict.
- perpetuates discontentment and disagreement.
- others are in control.
However, as highly evolved mammals, we have three brains: the reptilian brain or survival-oriented brain; the emotional or limbic brain; and the neocortex brain. While our limbic/emotional brain is highly reactive and subconsciously involves our emotions and feelings, the neocortex is the thinking part of the brain, and where we have the capability to respond rather than react derives itself.
It is the neocortex where we develop thoughtful responses. This is where we gather and digest the necessary information, where we decipher what we are seeing and feeling, and where we put it into context. It’s future-focused, and where we understand the world so we are capable of making sound decisions. It is why when thinking about how you might respond in a more mindful fashion, you can plan your future responses and strengthen your ability to take action that is in your best interest.
A response is a conscious decision that usually comes more slowly, and:
- involves your neocortex or rational brain.
- isn’t based on your emotional trigger.
- involves acting by really thinking through consequences.
- it includes a plan for future responses.
- it’s non-threatening.
- it takes time.
- allows for assertiveness without aggression.
- resolves conflict.
- you are in control of your life.
While it’s not always easy to know how to respond best in every situation, being self-aware and emotionally intelligent help tremendously (topics I’ve discussed in my earlier posts). Like self-awareness and emotional intelligence, knowing how respond is a skill that can be developed. When we know first-hand the negative experience that can result from reacting, we are far more motivated to make sure we respond in a similar situation. It takes practice and requires us to be able to pause in nearly any situation before speaking or acting.
To achieve our full potential, and become more successful both personally, and professionally, we need to be more aware of, and have more influence over our responses. From recent brain research, we know that our brains are plastic and has the ability to develop connections with the other parts. According to Dr. Bill Crawford, a psychologist who studies the brain, and concepts of responding and reacting, our brains are constantly rewiring with every thought, emotion, and/or behavior. He says that “when we respond to life in a way that is more effective… the brain creates and reinforces neural pathways from our limbic system up to our neocortex”.
How Mindfulness helps reprogram your brain
“Mindfulness give you time. Time give you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. You don’t have to be swept away by your feeling. You can respond with wisdom and kindness rather than habit and reactivity.” – Bhante H. Gunaratana
Your thoughts (beliefs) create your feelings; your feelings create your actions; your actions create your results. Mindfulness is awareness of what is happening in the present moment, including awareness of thoughts, without any attachment to whatever you notice. Mindfulness is helpful because it creates space between thoughts and actions. By increasing your awareness of your thoughts, you can begin to break old automatic or habitual chain reactions between your triggers, thoughts, feelings and actions. Each time you choose to not to activate your old trigger-thought-feeling-action-result sequence, you weaken the connections. Furthermore, each time you choose a different action, you program new connections. With repetition and practice, you hardwire these new programs so your new thoughts and responses become your new habits.
When we respond to life, we:
- become the directors, rather than the followers
- establish stronger relationships
- become better communicators
- minimize confrontations
- find more peace
- reduce regret
- build a confidence that we can handle any situation we come up against
- we thrive!
In essence, when choosing to respond versus react, you are taking charge of your life. Choosing to be responsive is taking responsibility of our lives. Recognizing the power of our words, our behavior, our tone, our delivery, etc. will make a positive difference to those in our lives.
“Instead of asking others to change their behaviour, your power is in your changing your reaction to their behaviour. You have no control over their behaviour, but you do have complete control over your reaction to it.” – Abraham Hicks
How you can build a response habit:
Think of a time or situation that always causes conflict for you. What are the things you tell yourself about the situation? How do you usually react to it? Record your answers.
Practice responding to challenging situations until these responses become reactions.
Each time you enter into a situation that you know tends to cause you to react, take a few minutes to write down how you normally react and how you want to respond instead. What will it look like? What will you say differently? How will you act differently?
Photo source: Susan Wheeler (breezy window in Tuscany, Italy)