Choose Responding Versus Reacting

What’s the difference between reacting versus responding? Aren’t they the same thing? According to an article in Psychology Today, “A reaction is instant. It’s driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the unconscious mind… A response on the other hand usually comes more slowly. It’s based on information from both the conscious mind and unconscious mind.”

Another way to look at this is reacting is a knee jerk reaction to a stimulus. The same kind of reaction a lizard makes when it feels threatened. Your spouse asks you to do something you promised, and you react by angrily saying “I wish you’d quit nagging me.”

But you can also decide to give yourself space between the stimulus and your response.  Your spouse asks you to do something you promised, and, after a taking a deep breath, you say, “I’m sorry, I forgot. I’ll take care of that right now.” 

You can choose between reacting versus responding. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that react to any kind of obstacle, setback, or challenge. The thing about reactions is they are reflexive, ego-driven, and are focused on short-term outcome. While reactions make you feel better momentarily, they don’t resolve the issue effectively.

Responding is different. It’s intelligent, practical, and considers the long-term implications of that course of action.

People that react struggle and are known for making impulsive, often self-destructive decisions. Those that respond have fewer struggles in life. As it turns out, the biggest hassles in life are usually self-inflicted.

Here’s an example that highlights the differences between reacting versus responding:

Imagine that you have a horrible boss. Today at work, he berates you for something that isn’t your fault. He calls you a mean name. He says that you’re a worthless employee. You start to become enraged, convinced that you can’t take it anymore.

An Example of Reacting

Reacting in this situation might could be you storming into your boss’s office and telling him exactly what you think of him, then quitting in a blaze of glory. You might even see yourself spitting in his eye, stomping on his foot, and shoving your resignation letter into his mouth. While you don’t quite do this, you definitely burn any bridges you might have with this person as you leave.

The problem is, when you get home, you realize that the job market is tight, you have no savings, and no employment prospects.

Not exactly an optimal outcome, wouldn’t you agree?

An Example of Responding

You mindfully take a deep breath to create some space between the situation and your response. Now you take time to think about your options and decide that you need to find another job. You work on your resume. You put out feelers to everyone you know that have or know of a position that’s suitable for you. You get in touch with a recruiter and let them know that you’re looking.

You also cut back on your expenses and save some money just in case you lose your job.

Responding gives you options, reacting limits or removes them. The difference between reacting versus responding is one is likely to end in misery, while the other is likely to end in success.

How can you strengthen your odds of success when challenges arise?

Use this process to help you respond rather than react:


1.    Engage your mammalian brain.

It’s hard to be intelligent, logical, and practical when your emotions are out of control. This is because high emotions can cause what’s known as an amygdala hijack. This is where your prefrontal cortex, or mammalian brain is disconnected, and your lizard brain takes over.

As a result, you will react rather than respond. This is why it is so important to give your mammalian brain time to reengage. It gives you space you need to make your decisions when you’re cool, calm, and collected.

Take all the time you need. Let your mammalian brain regain control so you can thoughtfully mull the situation over and consider your best options.

2.    Identify the problem.

Ask, “What is the real issue here?” Think about what you want to change. Avoid changing a bunch of other things that may have a negative impact on your life. In the example above, you’d get away from your boss, but drastically change your income, too.

Let’s face it, nobody wants to live under a bridge or in their parent’s basement.

3.    Make your decision with the end in mind.

Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, is “Start with the end in mind.” This is known as outcome-based thinking.

Before making any decision, consider the outcome you desire. You might hate your job, but you don’t just want to get away from it. Again, think about how this will affect your lifestyle. Most likely you’ll want a good landing place, too.

4.    Make an intelligent plan.

Now that you have figured out your desired outcome, create a plan that resolves your issue and gives you that outcome. Reacting only removes the initial problem. It doesn’t provide a great outcome. A good plan does both.

5.    Execute that plan.

Follow your plan by DOING something! There are a lot of people that are great at making plans, but never execute them. You don’t want to be one of those people. Put your plan to the test and see what happens.


Become a Responder

Reacting versus responding is a mindfulness skill you can learn. If you’re someone that reacts to the challenges in your life, you already know the additional challenges it can bring. It’s the perfect example of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.”


Avoid making decisions when you’re upset. Calm yourself first. Then make an intelligent decision that will remove that challenge from your life in a way that leaves you better than you started. Life is much easier this way.

If you’d like to begin learning mindfulness so you can choose to respond rather than react, select the link below.

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