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Did We Respond or React?

October 16, 2018 | Communication, Leadership, Trust

Photo by aaron gilson on Flickr

One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for the word “react” is “to act in opposition to a force or influence.” One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for the word “respond” is “to say something in return.” Given these definitions and some of my experiences, here is what I have learned:

  • Along with the spoken message, reacting involves some type of behavior. It could be defensiveness, manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or rage.
  • Reacting comes from someone who is either angry or scared or both. Often, that feeling of anger or fear is triggered by the message being heard, and usually, this is triggered because of past experiences, not just the message.
  • Reacting involves bringing in our own experiences and re-shaping what we have heard. For example, the boss says, “Let’s review your recent report together at noon today.” Because of the listener’s experiences with their parents, teachers, or other people of authority, they may hear, “You did not do very well on that report, and I need to tell you what you did wrong.”
  • On the other hand, responding means to listen to the actual message being given, keeping our stories out of it, and in a calm way letting the other person first know that we hear them. Then, if we still feel calm, we share our observations about what was said. It is essential that we also make sure this does not come from a defensive stance.

Listening to criticism or hearing that someone was hurt by your actions or comments is not easy. When I am going to enter into some tough conversations, this is what I do:

  • I focus on my breathing – deliberate but natural breaths…in and out of the mouth.
  • I focus on hearing what the other person has to say.
  • I do not bring my thinking in until I completely hear what the other person has to say.
  • If my feelings about what the other person says are still anger and fear, I answer, “I appreciate you sharing that with me. I need some time to think about what you said.” Then I do it. There’s no shame in this. People wanting to have a healthy relationship with you will respect this.

One clear way I know I have reacted is I ask myself, “How old did I feel when I responded to that person? If I feel like I am 13 or less, I know I reacted to what was said opposed to responding.

When did you recently react to something that was said to you by a boss, co-worker, spouse, significant other, or friend? How old did you feel?


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