You’re about to learn the key differences between response vs reaction, why it’s better to respond than react and how to teach yourself to do that.
Reacting is easier, but responding tends to have better long-term consequences.
When you can learn to respond instead of reacting, your relationships with other people are far more likely to have a positive outcome.
In my role as a life coach, I am often helping clients improve their communication skills – and this is one of the most important lessons to learn, if only for your emotional well-being.
So, let’s explore the difference right away.
1. What Is The Difference Between A Response And A Reaction?
A reaction is instant, instinctive and purely emotional. It’s driven by the unconscious mind. That’s why you often seem to react ‘without thinking’. A reaction is based entirely in the heat of the moment. When you react, you rarely consider the long-term consequences of your actions.
A response occurs after you consider the desired outcome of the situation. In most cases, you’ll consider the long-term consequences of your actions. As such, a response usually aligns with your core values.
2. Reaction Vs Response: What’s Going On The Brain?
Another key difference: reactions and responses are fuelled by different parts of the brain.
A reaction is fuelled by the reptilian brain. This animalistic part of the brain evolves first. That’s why a young child always tends to express itself by reacting. Its understanding of how to respond doesn’t develop until later.
This section of the brain is concerned primarily with avoiding harm and keeping you alive. The ‘fight or flight’ response – which sparks up when we sense danger – is triggered by this part of the brain. Our ‘auto-pilot’ behaviors are also controlled here.
A response is fuelled by the more evolved part of our brain; the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for our more complex thoughts, above our animalistic desires for food, water, sex, physical comfort etc.
3. Respond Vs React Examples
Here are a handful of examples to really hammer home the difference.
Example I: A Man Is Pushing You And Insulting You.
You might react to this provocation by trying to hurt him. Indeed, the ‘fight or flight’ response reacts when one believes they’re in danger. At the very least, you might react by pushing and insulting him back. In fact, it’s common to instinctively react by copying the behavior of the aggressor.
However, you might respond differently because responding involves consideration of the consequences. You might conclude that fighting could get you hurt, or it could land you in trouble with the law. It would certainly damage your future relationship with this man and his friends. Perhaps you’ll still fight this guy (depending on your values) but most likely you’ll conclude it makes sense to exit the situation.
Example II: Your Boss Calls You Incompetent
You might react by insulting him back.
On the other hand, you might respond by taking this feedback on the chin, due to the consequences of insulting the head of your business. On the balance of probabilities, you’ll probably lose your job, so it’s usually best to watch your mouth.
Example III: A Beggar Approaches You To Ask For Money
You might react by instantly rejecting this person or walking away without giving any money, if this is your auto-pilot response. Often, this reaction comes from a negative feeling like fear, embarrassment or disgust.
You might respond by giving him money because that is aligned with your values. You might also respond by not giving him money if you consciously decide that your money is best spent elsewhere.
4. Is It Better To React Or Respond?
When we react, we’re at the mercy of our emotions. Our reptilian brain makes a knee-jerk reaction based on how we feel in the moment. Often, when we do this, the future consequences are dire, as you can see in the first two examples.
In this event, we often sense that we’re not acting like ourselves. That’s because reactions are spontaneous and not based on our conscious morals or values.
When we respond, we are in control of our thoughts. We use logic to consider the consequences for ourselves – and probably those around us. We make decisions based on our existing values. Although we might not always make the correct decision, we’re at least putting our intelligence to work. In most cases, the end result is better when we do this.
5. Why Do People React Instead Of Respond?
The simple answer is: because it’s easier.
When we react, it involves almost zero brain power. You’ll use no willpower, no self-control, no mental strength, no consideration of others. None of that!
Because your brain is on auto-pilot.
It’s your default course of action to react, because your brain likes using as little energy as possible. Your reptilian brain will let you sleep-walk through life if you let it.
When we respond, we have to overpower the natural urge to react. This involves self-awareness and mental strength.
The thing is: a lot of us don’t have enough of it!
This is especially true when we are stressed or fatigued. It’s in these moments we are more likely than ever to cave in and react instead of responding calmly. That’s why unhappy people are more prone to reacting, while content people are usually able to respond.
6. Is It Sometimes Better To React?
Remember, reacting is often linked to our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism – and that is responsible for keeping us safe and alive.
When we’re in danger, we automatically react to protect ourselves.
The problem is: we trigger our fight or flight responses too easily – and react when responding is the best course of action.
7. How Do You Stop Someone From Reacting?
In order to respond to a particular event, we often need to notice we’re about to react and stop ourselves from doing so.
This involves a certain level of mindfulness to achieve.
It’s a big reason why life coaches will recommend mindfulness exercises to their students.
Meditation is a popular mindfulness exercise. This practice teaches you to separate yourself from your thoughts. Frequent meditators develop the ability to witness their thoughts, then decide whether to act upon them.
They learn to pay attention to their body and become more self-aware of the sensations that arise when they’re about to fall victim to reaction mode.
Once you have the ability to do this, it becomes much easier to pause, take a deep breath and respond instead.
Watch the video below to learn more about processing your emotions this way.
8. Reacting Vs Responding Exercise
This five-step exercise is often recommended to help people control their emotions, and respond instead of reacting.
It can be remembered using the acronym PLACE.
- Pause. The moment you notice your emotions changing, pause and breathe.
- Label Your Emotions. Are you angry? Is it frustration? Grief? It’s easier to process an emotion when you consciously put a name on it.
- Ask Yourself Why. Why are you about to react? Be as detailed as possible. This question can help you identify and deal with subconscious trauma. It can also help you realize that it would be silly to react.
- Choose A Mindful Response. Ask yourself what your desired outcome is, then choose from a list of responses most likely to get you there.
- Empower Yourself. Notice how much better it was to respond from a place of mindfulness instead of reacting out of negative animalistic emotion. Give yourself a pat on the back.
For more ideas to help you respond instead of reacting, see these guides:
- Emotional Reactivity – Ways To Be More Mature
- Ways How To Stop Your Reactive Anger
- Effective Ways To Practice The Pause
9. What Does It Mean To Be ‘Triggered’?
In recent times, ‘triggered’ appears to have become a buzzword, thrown around whenever someone loses their temper or becomes overly emotional.
However, its most popular definition in the self-improvement world surrounds trauma buried in one’s subconscious.
When something happens to awaken that trauma and that person reacts, that person is said to be ‘triggered’.
In most cases, this reaction will appear to be way out of proportion for what happened. That’s because triggered individuals aren’t reacting to the events that occurred in that moment. They’re responding to their past trauma – which they’re often not even aware of – being triggered by that action.
If you find yourself often getting angry or upset about the smallest events, it’s possible you’re being triggered.
The best way to get to the bottom of this is to work with a coach or therapist. These professionals are trained to dig into your subconscious to discover what is causing this stimulus within you.
Only when you have an understanding of this trauma will you be able to let go and behave more rationally.
10. Reacting Vs Responding Worksheet
Here’s a nice summary of the difference between reaction and response.
- Occurs instantly
- Driven by the subconscious mind
- Done ‘without thinking’
- No reasoning
- No regard for the long-term consequences
- Often ‘out of character’
- Often regretted later
- Occurs more slowly
- Mostly driven by the conscious mind
- Involves much thought and reasoning
- Based on the long-term consequences
- Stays in line with core values.
- Rarely regretted later
Related article: No Response Is A Response (Often A Powerful One) – Insights
11. Response Vs Reaction Quotes
“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
A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” – William James
“When I look back on my knee-jerk reactions now, I realize I should have just taken a breath.” – Fred Durst
12. Reaction Versus Response: What Is The Ultimate Outcome?
I would urge you to explore this for yourself!
If you’re prone to over-reactions, try embracing meditation or another mindfulness practice to gain more self-awareness so you can notice what your nervous system does in these moments.
Then, when you feel emotion bubbling up, practice the 5-step PLACE process.
You should find that you’re able to make more measured decisions that lead to better outcomes and better relationships with others. You should also feel better about yourself, because you’re no longer a slave to your emotions. Instead, you have enough mindfulness to remain in control of your own destiny.
Any More Questions About Reaction Versus Response?
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I hoped it helped to bring awareness to the difference between reacting vs responding.
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