Episode 45 – Reacting vs. Responding

Often we react to situations in a split second.  We are not even conscious of the thoughts that drive our feelings and actions and we react to a situation poorly.  In this episode, you will learn how to respond to a situation instead of reacting to get better results in your life.

Show Notes:

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Reacting vs. Responding

Show Summary:

Let’s talk about reacting vs. responding.  Some people use these words interchangeably, but I think there is a big difference between the two.


A reaction happens in a split second.  It’s driven by an unconscious thought and it’s usually based on thoughts we tend to think over and over and over.

Most often our reactions (since they come from not thoughts you aren’t thinking on purpose) don’t take into consideration the long term effects of what you do or say.  It might turn out okay, but often a reaction is something you regret later.


A response on the other hand, usually comes more slowly.  A response usually comes from being intentional and purposely thinking something.  You take into consideration how you want to show up in that situation, and others around you.  You can also weigh out the consequences of your decision.

The reaction and the response may look the same, but they FEEL very different because of the thoughts behind them.

For example – Say your spouse says something to you that touches a nerve.  Normally you react by getting defensive.  Maybe you criticize him in some way.  Maybe you yell and scream.  Or maybe you just feel awful about yourself and withdraw.  That is a reaction.

A response would be to take a breath. Think about how you want to show up in that situation.  Do you want to yell and criticize? Do you want to feel awful about yourself and withdraw?  Maybe, when you think about it you want to seek understanding of where you spouse is coming from and why they are feeling the way they are.  It doesn’t mean you agree with them, but you can respond in a way that is more in line with your values.

We all know there is a difference in responding vs. reacting, but the more reacting we do, the less empowered we are.  When we operate from underlying beliefs and are not intentional in our lives most often our results are less than stellar and not what we want them to be.

So how do we fix this?

The first step is to become aware of what those underlying thoughts and beliefs are.  This takes time and work.

When a situation happens that we reacted to, we need to go back and analyze it.  Do a model on it.  Figure out that thought so we can gain awareness over it.  Awareness of those underlying thoughts in and of itself is so powerful.

The next time it happens something similar happens, we may react in the exact same way, and that is ok.  Just be compassionate with yourself that you are still learning.  But go back again and analyze it.  What happened?  What was the thought that prompted me to feel and act this way?  More awareness.

Once you feel like you have a good understanding that it is NOT what your spouse said or did that made you react this way, but it was that unconscious thought, then you get some power over it and can move to a new intentional thought.

In 1998, researchers Anthony Greenwald, Debbie McGhee, and Jordan Schwarz introduced something called the Implicit Association Test.  It measured the milliseconds that it takes to connect pairs of ideas.  The test is based on the concept that you will be faster putting together ideas you already associate with one another.

For example – if the you think that someone criticizing you means that something is wrong with you then that association is what your brain will automatically go to.  But if you decide that if someone criticizes you, you don’t want to make it mean anything about you, that is not what you unconscious mind will naturally go to, so it will take extra time for your brain to make those new associations.

The important thing is to allow yourself that time.  When you feel yourself about to react, take a breathe.  Think your new thoughts, and then respond from a place of empowerment and choice rather than just react.

When we do this – we are interrupting our model.

Our original model was the circumstance, the unconscious thought, the feeling, and the action (or reaction), and our results that aren’t great.

But in our interrupted model, we have our same circumstance (like our husband saying something we think is a criticism), and our brain jumps to our normal belief, but we stop, we take a breathe, we think our new thought and respond.

As we do this over and over, our brain will eventually start to connect the circumstance to our new thought automatically and we are able to respond instead of react in that scenario.

But just because you can do this in one scenario, doesn’t mean you will do it all scenarios and circumstances.  Each one will take intentional thoughts and work.  But you will get better and better at it with practice.

Sometimes when we learn about this we try to put it into practice immediately and get frustrated with ourselves when we continue to show up in ways that don’t serve us.  So make sure you are just taking things slow and just gaining the awareness first.  You need to have a firm grasp of the thought creating the feeling and driving the action before you try to correct it.

I have found this to be a very important skill in my parenting.  So many times my kids would be acting up or doing something that they always do and my unconscious thoughts were “why are they acting this way, they know better, they shouldn’t be doing this” which would cause me to feel frustrated and angry and I would yell at my kids.  But guess what, I hardly every yell at my kids anymore.  Because when they are acting up, my intentional thought is “of course they are acting this way, they’re kids or they’re teenagers, and I want to teach them and love them” and then I show up in that situation so much better to my kids.  I show up in love and peace and understanding rather than in anger or frustration.  I feel so much better about how I am showing up as their mom.

But I still have my moments where I don’t show up as my best self so it’s always important to go back in and repair.  According to the Gottman Institute, repair is less about fixing what’s broken and more about getting back on track.  It’s about forgiving yourself and understanding that you are human, you make mistakes, but you can apologize and get back on track with the relationship.  This takes vulnerability.  It means admitting your mistakes.  But it can really help create that bond in a relationship.

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