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Learn to Respond, Not React


We have all heard the famous saying, “life is 10% of what happens and 90% of how you react to it.” Imagine going to the doctor for medication and returning for a follow-up visit. In one case the doctor says you are reacting to the medication, in the other case the doctor says you are responding to the treatment. When anything happens in the environment to cause you feel the slightest bit threatened, ranging from someone cutting you off in traffic to a coworker making a critical remark, your brain activates in the reactive mode.  We are uncomfortable with what is being said or done, and we react. In our reactions, our emotions take a central role. We lose control. Reacting is sporadic and emotional. Responding, though, is more thoughtful.

“Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” ~Laurence J. Peter


Difference between react and respond

Reacting is fast; responding is slow. When I react, I do it right away. When I respond, I take my time. Responding is guided less by emotion and more by logic.

Reacting is automatic; responding is conscious. When I react, it’s almost as if there’s something automatic pushing me toward a certain direction. When I respond, it’s a conscious process. I weigh my options and then move forward.

Reacting is extreme; responding is balanced. When I react, I tend to go to extremes. I do something and do it all the way. When I respond, it’s usually more balanced. I might take a small step in one direction and then see how it goes.

The choice to react happens in my own head; responding often involves other people. When I react, I don’t get any feedback from others. There isn’t enough time, I just make a decision and go with it. When I respond, I often have the chance to ask other people in my life what they think. I’m able to get feedback and incorporate it into my response.

 “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Viktor E. Frankl

Real life examples

React: Your child breaks something. You immediately react by getting angry, perhaps yelling, upsetting the child and yourself, worsening your relationship, not making anything better.

Respond: Your child breaks something. You notice your anger reaction, but pause, take a breath and consider the situation. The first response is to see if your child is OK — is she hurt, scared? Second, realize that the object that is broken, in the larger view, is not that important. Let it go, adjust to the world without it. Third, help her clean up, show her that mistakes happen and that it’s not something to dwell on. Fourth, calmly talk about how to avoid mistakes like that in the future, and give her a hug.

This choice presents itself to us all the time, whether it’s our wife nagging us, our co-worker being rude, our husband not being kind enough, and so on. There will always be external events that bother us, but if we learn to respond and not just react, we can make things better and not worse.

How to respond, not react

When someone says something you don’t like, take a deep breath before speaking.

This also applies to writing since we have so many conversations via text message, email, Facebook messages and the like… and the idea is to give yourself time to notice how you’re feeling, how you’re reacting internally before you express it externally to the other person or people involved.

‘Do you have the patience to wait?

Till your mud settles and the water is clear?

~Lao Tzu

So often our initial reaction gets us in trouble, it causes the other person or people to also get defensive and react, and then the cycle whirls out of control. You can stop this by taking a deep breath and keeping quiet.

Appreciate that everyone is different.

Your friends, family, colleagues, and even your acquaintances you bump into as you go through life will all have had different life experiences than you. So the next time someone says something that you totally disagree with and you find yourself feeling out of sorts, ask yourself if you can accept that this person is different from you. Not wrong necessarily, just different.

Get the opinion of others

There might be something about our situation that we just aren’t able to see because we’re too immersed in it. Make a commitment to call at least one person and ask their thoughts on the situation before making a decision. Tell them the situation, how you are feeling, and what you plan to do. Get their unbiased opinion.

Plan the next step

What’s the next step? After the above three steps, your mind would have certainly cooled down.You are now in a position to have an unbiased view of the situation. Plan a thoughtful response and take things forward in the right direction.


Ask yourself whether you respond to life, or react to life? Ask yourself who or what you allow to control your attitude and, therefore, your actions. Do you have the power to control your words and the way you feel or you have given the power to others? “You cannot tailor-make the situations in life, but you can tailor-make the attitudes in advance to fit that situation in life.” Remember, reacting out of emotion breeds anger, depression, negativism, bitterness. Responding out of strength and understanding breeds hope and creativity, and it breeds action

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