Reaction or Response?

Do you know the difference? Until 3 years ago, I didn’t! (Clarke) We ‘react’ to situations all the time in our everyday lives. A ‘reaction’ is dictated by the dominant emotion in that given moment and emotions can be so strong that they prompt actions that we wouldn’t normally engage with. A classic example is of supporters at a football match. When a goal is scored or the team wins, people will shout and embrace total strangers tighter than they embrace their own family! A “response” however, is when we take the time to consider all the aspects of a situation, and then CHOOSE our subsequent actions. This isn’t to say that ‘reacting’ is bad. Our emotions form part of our guidance system and are our catalysts to action. In certain situations it is imperative that we take action as quickly as possible. A good example is when there is imminent danger. Our fear kicks in and we take action to flee from the danger, or protect the dependants in our charge, like when a child tries to run across the road. We see the danger, fear and responsibility kick in and we grab the child and pull them away from the road. When it comes to communicating with each other though, especially our loved ones, reacting can create problems. To create a safe environment where everyone feels free to share their innermost thoughts, it is important that our replies aren’t given in “reaction” to what is said. Here's a classic example that used to happen in our lives:

Carrie tells me that she is feeling sad today I used to think it was my responsibility to ‘make’ Carrie happy, so this declaration would cause me to think that I’d failed. “But I was doing my best, trying to fulfil my roles as husband and father, this makes me feel hurt and unappreciated”, and so my immediate reaction would be to get defensive, justify all of my recent actions and claim that she shouldn’t be sad! This, in turn, would undermine Carrie’s feelings, make her feel unheard or ignored, and cause her to stop communicating and hide her sadness. It also made it less likely that she would share her true feelings with me the next time that she was feeling sub-optimal, in fear that I would react negatively again. And so the spiral of secrecy and internalisation begins. The fact that Carrie was sad because of something that had happened that day and had nothing to do with me has been totally lost, and she never even got to share it, so the burden feels even heavier for her than before. Today, Carrie and I actively listen to each other. If one of us shares our feelings, the other person acknowledges what is said and asks: “Is there a reason for these feelings, and do you want to talk about them?” This gives a validity to the presence of each other’s emotions, and offers the option to to listen and support if that is what is wanted or needed. Once listening to all of the factors contributing to where the person is at, we take a little time to think, process what has been shared, before we respond with our words and actions. Sometimes it takes a minute, sometimes it takes an hour, but it always takes our full consideration and respect. This process means that we don’t react to each other out of fear, anger, embarrassment or guilt, but we take the time to respond objectively to all of the factors in any statement or situation. It fosters the feeling of it always being ‘safe to share’ in our relationship, as well as being unconditionally loved the other. What is the usual pattern of communication with you and your loved ones? Is time taken to listen, hear and understand, before a response is given? Or are reactions more likely and emotions rise and dominate? Have a think in your reflection time this week about the reactions and responses in your relationships.

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