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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

The difference between reacting and responding, and how to do the latter more!

I was recently interviewed for an article for The Metro on this topic - here are my thoughts and some practical tools:

TM: What’s the difference between reacting and responding? Why is it better to respond rather than react?

AT: Simply put, when it comes to our communications, a reaction is instinctive and immediate – a bit like a reflex, or the proverbial “knee jerk”, a response is more reasoned and thought through.

As a very basic example, if you have ever added a *that’s what I meant asterisk after a comment or text, or struggled for the “undo” button following pressing send (or chastising yourself for not activating it, because “recall” still means people have seen the email!!) – you are likely to have reacted rather than responded. Responses may still have mistakes, but you have often taken a moment to not only construct a clear reply – but process what was actually being said (communication is only ever as good as the message received after all!)

According to Maria Konnikova, poker players call a non-thought through reaction “tilt” – following a big win or a loss, you may be emotionally “tilted” and your next moves may become slipshod or biased. DBT (Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) would remind you that it is always best when behaviour engages the “wise” mind – that is the balance between emotion and rationality, and this can only be done when you have had time to process what you are dealing with, AND consider the broader consequences of your response – while bearing in mind that even a response that is clear to you could still be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

HOWEVER, one thing I would say is, because a reaction is often visceral and therefore perhaps more fundamental (eg like a “gut feeling”) than the interpretation or analysis which follows, I would always mentally note my initial reaction (which can be very basic, and base), because that may become an extra guide as to what outcome I would like my response to yield.

TM: What are some common consequences of reacting to strong emotions? Is it bad for our mental wellbeing? Are there any other outcomes?

AT: In some cases, if you are in safe space, I would say react to strong emotions as much as you like – it can be very healthy to express how we feel authentically and openly if the situation allows us to do so. It can also mean that we are then able to better manage an effective response at the times when a strong reaction may be problematic. I am certainly not advocating always hiding feelings in front of children for example, but it may be that they may not understand a raw outpouring and being able to talk with them in a considered way is healthier, while also allowing yourself space to feel – and express – what you do with a friend or in a different environment.

And, sometimes, an extra surge of emotion might be what is needed if someone is not perceiving, or perhaps ignoring, any more subtle hints that you might be dropping. Unfortunately because we don’t tend to manage emotional outbursts very well, a strong reaction can result in people avoiding us, or becoming overly concerned, or matching our energies – and none of those are helpful for interpersonal relationships longer term.

I would always say that if you are feeling strong emotions, it’s OK, although you may need to find a safe space in which to express them – this is where journaling, or channelling them into a sport or music can help reduce their voracity or their impairing impact on your ability to take a healthy course of action.

And, problems with supressing our emotions – eg NOT reacting (strongly or otherwise) are that they may build up a little like a pressure cooker, releasing at an even more inappropriate time because the body and mind cannot cope any longer, and we never really role model healthy acceptance and expression of emotions to our children or our teams, or those we might influence.

I would probably say that supressing emotions is more problematic than reacting strongly, BUT an impulse reaction can bring its own consequences or collateral damage as others might struggle to understand what is happening.

TM: How do we train ourselves long-term to respond, instead of reacting in the moment?

AT: This sort of work needs to be done outside the point of crisis. You cannot simply tell yourself “breathe deeply” to any sort of positive outcome, if you have not already been used to this method of calm, and for some – like myself – I still have to accompany the “instruction” with an affirmation “Even if I cannot control anything around me, I can control my breathing.”

- Younger children learning to manage their emotions benefit from preparing a “wellbeing kit” – and there’s no reason why we can’t too. A child’s kit may comprise of affirmations, or things to encourage slow breathing such as bubbles to blow, as well as soothing textures, and even a thermometer which can allow them to express on the image how big their feeling is emotionally. For the adult, my clients like to include things such as smells that calm them – eg a lavender pomander, or a tea bag, and some even include a fan because you can get very hot when emotional, and that discomfort can make things worse.#

- Another thing we can start to teach at a young age is that emotions are nothing to be scared of...and often although they may feel "big" - they will pass. A way of helping this process is NOT supressing them, but naming them, and perhaps even asking the child on a scale of 1-10 how big is this feeling right now...and then work together to outline things that might help such as speaking to someone when a feeling gets to a 4, or drawing when it's at a 2 or 3.

- Research has also shown that general “calming” practices – meditation, or exercising including walking, getting out into nature, gratitude practice, as well as joyful pursuit such as keeping a “positivity carousel” of happy photos which you look at often, and stroking a pet can all contribute to lower levels of cortisol being released at the point of stress.

TM: What about in the moment of a strong emotion – what do you have in your tool kit to get ourselves to pause and think things through?

AT: There are a number of things we can practice - but remember, as I said before, we need to put in the work outside the point of high emotion!!

- Having pre-prepared phrases which you practice can be helpful eg: “I do want to deal with this, but need to do so when I can give it my full attention”, or “I will revert to you on that at xxx”, or simply excusing yourself and just taking yourself to a different environment can dissipate some of the tension of the moment.

- Focusing on the facts of the matter can also help reduce some of the emotional tension.

- Enlisting the support of the other person can also help, for example asking “What is the best thing I can do for you right now?”

- And of course the popular 54321 grounding technique where you actively look around and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste has the effect of breaking any negative spiral of thinking and getting you focused in the present. It also clears a moment of headspace which can be enough to enable you to respond rather than react.

- OR the lovely “Thought stopping” technique from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is great if you are in a moment of strong emotion/overthinking on your own and that is simply saying STOP out loud, where again the verbalisation has the effect of breaking a negative train of thought.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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