Mastering the Art of Responding Versus Reacting

This article was originally published by Fast Company

In many sports, when coaches evaluate athletes, they are often trying to gauge their reaction times. A reaction time that is only a thousandth of a second faster can be the difference between making the save or allowing the goal. Fast reaction times are useful and even lifesaving in many situations. When a driver sees another car illegally entering their lane, a quick reaction can be the difference between life and death. But in many aspects of life, quick reactions can get us into trouble.

All of us know someone with a “short fuse.” When presented with something they don’t like, they go from calm and pleasant to angry and explosive in an instant. Their reactions are destructive and cause people to tiptoe around them. People like this find it difficult to build intimacy in relationships because those around them are reluctant to be vulnerable enough to share something that might upset them. Even if we aren’t someone who is quick to anger, all of us experience intense emotions when faced with certain situations. These can be things we perceive as potential sources of physical, psychological, emotional, or reputational harm; those that trigger a surge of emotions and hormones designed for self-protection; or anything that challenges something we believe in or value. These situations command our full and immediate attention and trigger our most primal fight or flight instincts. The need to react becomes urgent.

As leaders, we are continually faced with decisions that impact ourselves and others. Often, a quick reaction in these situations can hurt more than help us. One discipline that has benefited my leadership journey is realizing when I am reacting instead of responding. In my lexicon, reactions are “in the moment” -those instinctual actions that are caused by some outside stimulus. You insult or threaten me, and I react by insulting or threatening you. Responses, on the other hand, involve a pause between the stimulus and my action. You insult me, and I wait for a moment to consider my response. That pause is the key. It’s what allows us to consider all the things that drive our decisions- not merely our emotions or instincts, but also our beliefs, values, and hopefully our desire for how the action is going to impact us and others over the long term. The greater the impact of the decision and the more emotion I feel around it, the longer of a pause I probably need.

This is why we (hopefully) take time to make big life decisions. We seek advice, do research, make lists of pros and cons, and consider alternatives. We don’t want to rush into a job, relationship, or purchase that we may regret. It’s also why when we see someone else making a big decision in haste, we worry for them.

I have found that when I take the time to respond, I almost always make better decisions that lead to better outcomes. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of time to make decisions that could have long-lasting consequences. Often, we are faced with crises or pressures that require us to respond in the moment.

Athletes train situations over and over so that during a game, they recognize what’s happening and instinctively know how to react. A goalkeeper doesn’t have time to sit and think, “I wonder if I should go out of the box to get that ball?” By the time he’s asked the question, the other team has already scored. He needs to react instantly to the situation, but it’s vital to his team that he reacts in the right way. How can leaders train so that our reactions are the right ones?

We recently had a situation in our business in which someone made a huge and very costly error. When it surfaced in a meeting, I and the rest of our team were shocked.  We had to act quickly to address it, even though we realized we couldn’t fix all the damage. As we were leaving the meeting, someone on my team pulled me aside. “That was a huge mistake that she made. I thought for sure you were going to fire her for that.”
“Why would I fire her?” I responded. “I just paid a lot of money for her to learn that lesson, and I guarantee she will never make that mistake again. I want to benefit from her learning, not fire her so someone else does.” “Still, I was surprised how calmly you reacted. The rest of us are pretty angry.” “I understand being mad, and I have felt that too. But this isn’t the first time I have experienced someone on our team making a big mistake. I decided long ago that things go better if I reward learning instead of punishing failure.”
This is one of many great benefits of experience, but also one of the many reasons it is so valuable to have personal clarity about your values, beliefs, and what you desire out of life. Having conscious awareness about these things can help you navigate all decisions, including those that must be made quickly. If you don’t think about them in advance, you are much more likely to simply respond based on emotion. Having this clarity can help you train your reactions to look more like your responses.
Here are three suggestions for improving your ability to respond versus react:
  1. Learn to recognize intense emotions. Remember that actions driven solely by intense emotions are often going to damage relationships
  2. Practice the art of the pause. Whenever possible, allow yourself the space to consider (not ignore) your emotions, but also your values and long-term desires before responding.
  3. Train your reactions. Create conscious awareness of your values and purpose and think about how they will play out in the emotionally charged and/or challenging situations you will inevitably face.

Leave a comment