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Responding versus Reacting

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt a lot about on a personal level in the last couple of years, it’s the importance of responding versus reacting to situations. Unfortunately it’s too often that we react in our lives when something happens, typically because we don’t have the time (or take the time) to think about what’s going on. This happens both in our personal lives as well as in our working environment.

Let’s start with thinking about the subtle difference of the two actions. A reaction is instant and is typically driven by your unconscious mind, made up of your beliefs and biases. It’s when we do something without thinking in the moment. A reaction is linked to our fight or flight instinct and on some level is a defense mechanism. The problem is that it doesn’t consider the long term impact of the reaction, which is why you’ll often regret it later.

A response on the other hand usually comes more slowly, because it’s based on information from both the conscious mind and unconscious mind. It’s a considered response and will take into account not just how you’re feeling, but others involved also. A response will consider the long term effects of what happens and stays in line with your core values.

A reaction and a response may look the same, but they do feel different.

“When I look back on my knee-jerk reactions now, I realize I should have just taken a breath.”— Fred Durst

This last weekend was a personal example for me where I experienced both reaction and response in almost the same moment. I’d parked on a slight hill and as I was getting out of my car, I felt a jolt as another car rolled into the back of mine. I walked around to see the cars bumper to bumper, so didn’t know whether there was any damage. I looked at the driver and could see he was flustered and it took him a minute or so before he was able to reverse the car back a little. Seeing he was in that state and not knowing what the damage was, I didn’t have any reaction, which I might have done in the past. Quickly processing the situation and knowing I didn’t have all the information at that time. Imagine if I’d started shouting and yelling, only to discover there was no damage at all.

After he pulled back, he went to get out of the car and it started rolling forward again as he hadn’t put on his handbrake. Now I reacted (as did my girlfriend), and immediately put my foot on the front of his car to try to slow it further while he applied the handbrake. Whether it helped slow the car or not, it was just an instinctual reaction to protect myself. Now at this point a reaction towards him might have been a normal response, but I could see how this had shaken him up even more and there wasn’t much damage to my car. He appreciated the way I responded and was open with providing his information and has since agreed to pay for the damage to be repaired. I’m not sure it would have been the same if I’d reacted and I also know I wouldn’t have enjoyed the rest of my afternoon because of it.

Think about times in the workplace where you’ve maybe reacted and then regretted it later. Did you pause to think about what’s happening, asking why the situation is existing. Putting yourself in the other persons shoes and seeing things from their perspective. Even if that wouldn’t have changed the reaction, if mind help you come up with a way to support the other person to behave differently next time. So not only are you then developing your capability to respond versus react, but you are also helping the other person develop and learn on how to handle things in a better way. A win-win is always a great outcome.

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