Respond vs. React

This week I spent time in a few different coaching sessions in a dialog about the difference between responding and reacting. As I sat down to write the blog post I “googled” the concept and the following blog came up number one. I thought she explained it marvelously. With permission of the author I share it with you.

 By Carolyn Mycue

Often times we use the words “respond” and “react” interchangeably.  Even when I check my MS Word 2000 thesaurus, the top synonym for each word is the other.  I’d like to take some time and share with you what I feel is a very fine but powerful distinction between the two.

When we react, we are coming from a place of limitation.  This limitation is the result of direct experiences that have caused us to narrow our ability to see a situation for what it really is.  These direct experiences cause us to think we know what something is about and what it means to us (good/bad/indifferent), and then when we come upon that thing again at a later time we react with a pre-established bias and with pre-established behavior.  Some of this type of reaction is useful and helpful, such as a reaction to imminent danger such as fire.

But by and large, most of our reactions take the form of personal indulgences or injustices.  These reactions limit how we see ourselves and the world around us, and are a large source of so much of our suffering and unhappiness.  They limit the possibility for us to act in a different way.  For example, if as a child you were the target of a lot of yelling, you develop coping mechanisms to deal with that behavior.  As an adult, without awareness of those coping mechanisms, you are probably going to react in much the same way as you did when you were a child.  These limitations prohibit us from being able to respond to situations and drain our empowerment to effectively make whatever changes we need to make.

A reaction also sets us up to play the victim in situations and then we try to, either inwardly or outwardly, make the situation or person wrong.  A good example of this can be seen in situations where we find ourselves saying “You’re behavior makes me feel (insert feeling here).”  An important distinction is that no one’s behavior can ever make you feel anything.  What you feel as a result of someone’s behavior is up to you.  To use the above example, if someone yells at me, I can react from a place of feeling threatened if that’s what my past conditioning has set me up to do.  Or if I am aware enough of those triggers, I can recognize that there are many other ways I could act, and then I can choose from that list of actions and respond accordingly.

So the distinction there is that no one is making me feel anything.  They are doing what they are doing, and it’s my pre-established bias that makes me feel a certain way.  If I can recognize that trigger, I can open myself up to new options and respond to the situation more compassionately.

So to be able to respond means I am free to act instead of react to a situation.  It opens me up to more gracious behavior, and empowers me to effectively make whatever changes need to be made without adding more fuel to the fire by triggering the other person’s reactions.  Responsibility means “the ability to respond”, and when we reclaim that power, we can diffuse difficult situations, we can modify our harmfully indulgent behaviors, and we begin to find a new deeper level of trust for ourselves in this world.  We are then free to love difficult situations as much as we love the lovable ones because they no longer threaten us, and those responsible actions of love are far more powerful than any reaction of fear.

Carol’s Blog-

This entry was posted in Noticing|Awareness, Personal Development, Reactions. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Respond vs. React

  1. Sibyl says:

    Mark: It is so true that the choice is always ours as to how we want to respond. I think the distinction she drew between react and respond is such an important one. I appreciated what Carolyn said about the fact that no one is making us feel anything. Really great point and message. Great post.

    • Mark says:

      Sibyl – I’m glad you appreciated the post and the distinction. It may seem subtle – “very fine” – but actually they are monumentally different. That is why I wanted to blog post about it. I had spent time with a few people last week talking about this and our conversation was like an “Aha-Moment!” I am grateful for Carolyn’s post.

  2. farouk says:

    that’s so true mark
    i always believed emotions can be controlled and certainly responding instead of reacting is one of the methods that can lead to being in control of your emotions

    • Mark says:

      @Farouk – An oft-heard phrase spoken by many is, “You make me ______ (insert feeling word)!” That statement reveals a subtle but essential reality of the way they approach their emotional life: they leverage the reason for their emotions on others. I too am grateful for Carolyn’s excellent clarification of reaction and responding.

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