Interactions people have with one another—whether familial, professional, or personal—have implications on our well-being. Strong friendships and loose-tie bonds alike can bring us joy and a sense of meaning, but they can also be a source of anxiety or downright negativity. That’s why it’s crucial for us to keep learning how to keep these interactions healthy. And a key differentiator that can separate those positive from not-so-positive effects has to do with respectful communication, which is where reacting versus responding comes in.
Flat out, it's much preferable—with regard to the health of your relationships—to respond rather than react, says communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD, who conducted a study about how people feel when they’re reactive compared to when they’re responsive for her book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. She also adds that reacting may lead a person to feel badly about themselves, independent of the implications on their relationships.
“The subjects in our study felt like they were making poor judgments when they just reacted rather than responded to what was happening in their lives,” says Dr. Leaf. “They reported overreacting emotionally and reflecting in a destructive way. They also felt like they were becoming increasingly negative, and lost a sense of peace and happiness when they reacted in an impulsive way.”
Reacting versus responding: What's the real difference?
“Reacting involves responding to a trigger based on an automatized, often toxic, thought pattern that has been embedded in our [subconscious] mind over time,” Dr. Leaf says. Licensed marriage and family therapist Jaqueline Méndez, LMFT, adds that reacting is immediate and part of the human fight-or-flight response. “If we go a little deeper, it means that your nervous system reacted to the situation as if your life depended on it,” which is problematic, because that’s rarely ever the case.
“Responding means you self-regulate your thoughts and emotions in the moment.” —cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD
Responding, on the other hand, is what Dr. Leaf calls reacting's emotionally mature cousin. “Responding means you self-regulate your thoughts and emotions in the moment,” she says, adding that when you respond instead of react, you’re supporting your own clarity of thought. “[Responding] includes catching yourself before you regret what you say, rather than shooting off a nasty comment when someone does or says something you don’t like,” she adds.
And while it may seem that reacting is a faster course of action than responding, Méndez says both methods actually require about the same amount of time. That’s because after we react, our nervous system often takes longer to come back from any guilt we feel for engaging or even catalyzing an unideal interaction. When we respond, adds Méndez, though there may be more time dedicated to thoughtful introspection from the outset, we’re more present to what is happening to us and how we’re feeling—which ultimately leads to a better understanding of ourselves and better interactions with others.
3 ways to ensure you’re responding, not reacting
1. Practice deep breathing before saying anything
To ensure you’re responding instead of reacting, work to relax your system and your body, says Méndez. Taking deep breaths can help to ground you and relieve any feelings of anxiety that might propel you to otherwise react. “You want to learn to relax your system," she says. “Take your time to calm yourself down, to teach yourself not to react.”
Dr. Leaf adds that taking a 10-second pause can also work wonders when you’re trying to figure out how to respond effectively instead of react. “Breathe in very deeply for three counts and breathe out forcefully for seven counts,” she says. “Repeat this two to three times, depending on how stressed you feel.”
2. Learn to “empty out”
One of the reasons we may sometimes skew reactive is because we’re constantly bombarded with bad situations, says Méndez. Back in the ancient times, for instance, taking time to respond rather than react could have led to fatal results. So, in order to clear your mind in an effort to be responsive instead of reactive, she suggests journaling, therapy, and meditation as ways to empty your brain out so that your body has the opportunity to relax.
Dr. Leaf adds that learning to empty out through introspective practices like journaling can help you “gather awareness of how you are feeling emotionally and physically.” Additionally, writing things down can help you “reflect on why you feel the way you do...and organize your thinking [to] observe your patterns of thinking and responding,” says Dr. Leaf.
3. Become familiar with your limits
Some people and topics may simply just be triggering to you, so certain conversations and situations will require your full emotional patience. With this in mind, it's key to be able to introspect and understand your limits for being able to respectfully engage at any given moment, says Méndez. “Once you set that limit, it’s your responsibility to take that breath and then empty out, so that you can come back to that conversation,” she says. If you determine you don't have the bandwidth to have a certain conversation, make sure that you circle back when you do rather than sweeping it under the rug forever.
And while knowing your limits is great, being aware of how you might be registering to the other person is also key in respectfully responding. After all, if someone feels slighted or disrespected, the communication won't be as effective. “Craft a response carefully by choosing your words and thinking about your facial expression and intonation pattern,” says Dr. Leaf. Basically, ask yourself how the other person sees or hears you as you’re communicating with them, and make sure you stand by that vignette.
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