A Simple Formula for Responding Not Reacting

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When unexpected events occur—which, of course, they always do; the only real constant in life is change—most people go down one of two roads: they either respond or react.

Responding, a spin off from the word responsibility, is considerate and deliberate. Reacting, on the other hand, literally means to meet one action with another one. It is immediate and rash.

It’s a case of the 2P’s versus the 4P’s:

Reactions tend to go like this: Something happens. You panic. Then you proceed.

Responses tend to go like this: Something happens. You pause. You process. You plan. Then you proceed.

Reacting is quick. Responding is slower. Responding creates more space between an event and what you do (or don’t do) with it. In that space, you give immediate emotions some room to breathe, better understand what is happening, make a plan using the most evolved part of your brain, and then move forward accordingly.

Responding is harder than reacting. It takes more time and effort. It often requires letting a strong itch—the yearning to immediately do something, anything, about whatever just happened—be there without scratching it. But, like most things that require effort, responding also tends to be advantageous. You rarely regret deliberately responding to a challenging situation. You often regret automatically reacting to one.

A key tool to help you in this process is called “affect labeling”:

In a series of studies out of UCLA, researchers subjected participants to unplanned and distressing situations, such as giving impromptu speeches in front of strangers. Half the participants were instructed to label their emotions. For instance, “I feel tightness in my chest,” “I feel angst in my throat,” or “I feel heat in my palms.” The other half were not instructed to do anything special.

The participants who felt and labeled their emotions, what researchers call affect labeling, had significantly less stress and felt more at ease during their speeches.

While it might seem that owning your insecurity would give it more power, it’s the opposite. When you identify your emotions—especially the negative ones—it lessens the likelihood that the emotion will control you. It switches you out of being fused with your emotion (reaction mode) and into a more thoughtful state (responsive mode).

Bringing it together:

Whether it is unexpected traffic, a meeting that didn’t go to plan, missing an aid-station in your marathon, a dog having diarrhea when you are rushing out the door, a leak in your kitchen, a disagreement with your spouse or colleague, or something more significant, you can call on the 4 P’s to get you out of reacting and into responding:

  1. Pause: Take a deep breath or two. Gather yourself.
  2. Process: Label the emotions you are feeling. Tell yourself, This is what is happening right now, I’m doing the best that I can.
  3. Plan: Now that you’ve collected yourself, make a plan for what you want to do going forward. Figure out what resources and skills you can bring to the situation at hand.
  4. Proceed: Only then take action and proceed.

What seems to happen is that the more you practice responding instead of reacting not only do you start making better decisions but you also start to experience a part of yourself that is not so susceptible to change, at least not in the way you usually experience it. It’s the part of you that pauses, processes, plans, and proceeds. The part of you that is akin to the canvas upon which the content of your life is painted.

When you react to a situation you fuse with it and become it. Going from one reaction to the next is an emotional roller-coaster. When you respond to a situation, however, you put a few degrees of freedom between a deeper and more stable sense of self and the ever-changing current of your life.

Brad

P.s., This framework comes from chapter five of Master of Change.

The book is filled with concepts and practices like the above (we counted over 30 of them) and we are confident grabbing a copy serves as a great investment!

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5 comments

  • Yes, Reaction may have negative outcome, where as response involves conscious decision process, likely less chances of negative outcome.

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