Have you ever had one of those moments when you realize you are in an eerily similar situation as the past? Last week my wife Lynn got pretty mad at me for the same reason my ex used to—saying something insensitive. This time, I responded differently and the outcome was a lot better, which caused me to reflect on the difference between reacting and responding.

Here’s what happened: Lynn thought something I said was, essentially, me calling her dumb. I felt some deja-vu because I’d been accused of this same infraction years ago by my ex-wife Michelle. Back then, my immediate, defensive reaction to Michelle spiraled down into to a nasty argument.

This time, however, Lynn and I quickly sorted out our misunderstanding. It was the same starting point, but a far different ending. Both times felt like an unfair attack, but the different outcome was the result of me responding rather than reacting to her.

The different outcome was the result of me responding rather than reacting to her.

Reacting and responding seem like words that mean the same thing. The thesaurus lists one as a good substitute for the other. As I worked to stop behavior that was damaging my relationships and getting me into trouble, I learned the critical difference between reacting and responding.

The difference between reacting and responding

The first, most obvious difference between reacting and responding is the amount of time that passes between the event and our action. A reaction is fast—almost instantaneous. Comparatively, a response takes more time to develop and deliver.

After you’ve done something hurtful, have you ever had anyone ask, “What were you thinking?” and not have an answer? With a reaction, we don’t stop to think—we just react. A response, on the other hand, is where we engage the rational, reasoning part of our brain.

Somewhat related, the difference between reacting and responding is whether or not we consider different alternatives. With a reaction, we say or do the first thing that comes to mind. Contrast that to a response, where we consider several possibilities, then select which words or actions will be the most beneficial.

With a response, we consider several possibilities, then select the most beneficial one.

A reaction probably looks irrational and over-the-top to others, and maybe even to ourselves later when we examine it. Responses, on the other hand, will seem a lot more sensible. A good way to determine the difference between reacting and responding is whether or not our action contributed to a positive outcome.

While it’s clear why we would want to respond rather than react, just saying so doesn’t make it happen. There are specific strategies we can practice to stop reacting as much and start responding more. When we do, we experience better relationships and we’ll be less frustrated with ourselves for saying or doing something we regret.

(More) time is of the essence

Creating time to think is an essential strategy that means the difference between reacting and responding. As we’ve already noted, good responses require time for us to engage the cognitive parts of our brain and consider alternatives. This is not only logical, but is based on the biology of our brain and the affects of adrenaline.

Using time-outs provides us that time and allows our emotions to drain away so they don’t overwhelm our ability for clear thought. There is a right and wrong way to use a time-out, so following a solid time-out process is essential. The goal is to take enough time for clear, rational thoughts, but not so much that we are avoiding the issue and stonewalling instead.

The goal of a time-out is to take enough time for clear, rational thought.

When Lynn accused me of saying that she was stupid, I listened but didn’t reply right away. It’s a good thing, because my gut reaction would not have been productive. Instead, I took some time to think through what she said and how I could respond most effectively.

Constructive thinking

How we focus our thoughts during a time-out, or whatever time we are taking to formulate our response, is important. It starts with good awareness of our emotions and the thoughts behind them.  When Lynn accused me of being insensitive, I felt hurt and thought she was unfairly judging me as insensitive and a bad person.

Once I identified what was going on in my mind, I could see that some of my thoughts were distorted. My wife said my words were insensitive, not me. There’s a big difference between the two. And she said nothing about me being a bad person—that was something I added.

It took time to remember what she really said and to identify my distorted thoughts. Then, it took more time to come up with the challenges to those thoughts. Starting with the undistorted truth makes a big difference between reacting and responding.

Starting with the undistorted truth makes a big difference between reacting and responding.

With clearer thinking, I could form my response. Complaints about my actions merited a different reply than attacks on my character. The first involves clarifying the criticism and evaluating whether I should apologize or change future behavior. The second leads to needlessly defending my sense of self with a kill or be killed mentality.

Measure twice, cut once

Another strategy that makes a big difference between reacting and responding is reviewing our alternatives. When I do this well, I brainstorm several possibilities. Then, I choose a path that will lead to the best outcome.

I try to think through how my partner will hear my words or interpret my actions. Will she feel heard, understood, and cared about? Or will my words likely make her defensive or my actions make her feel intimidated or threatened?

After considering my options, I told Lynn I could see how she might interpret what I said as an insult to her intelligence. I assured her that I did not intend it that way, but that I would try to choose my words more carefully in the future. In an out-of-body sort of way, I watched myself and made sure that I spoke softly and gently.

Knowing the best outcome requires getting clear about our long-term values.

Knowing what the best outcome will look like is vital, too. This requires getting clear about our long-term values. If my objective is to win this argument, but it damages my relationship with my wife, then I lose. On the other hand, choosing words and actions that build respect and safety while resolving our conflict will lead to a closer, more intimate partnership.

The difference between reacting and responding requires time for planning. Once I blurt out hurtful words or act in a way that destroys trust, it takes a lot to undo the damage. Take your time and resist the urge to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings quickly.

Progress toward change

One question I hear a lot from those working to stop their hurtful behavior is, “How do I know I’m getting better?” The number of times we react vs. respond turns out to be a good measure of our progress. None of us is perfect, but shifting the score from the first to the second, plus reducing the size of our reactions, is possible.

The way I really gained traction was by discovering the core hurts behind my strong reactions, then healing them. This process takes time, and working with a good counselor helps. No doubt that a stronger sense of my personal value helped me hear Lynn’s criticism better than when I heard the same thing from Michelle.

Responding well means being assertive in a non-aggressive way.

I also want to say that this is not about becoming a doormat and absorbing whatever those around us dish out. While there is a huge difference between reacting and responding, in neither case are we being passive. Responding well usually means being assertive in a kind but not aggressive way.

Faith note

God knows the difference between reacting and responding. He calls us to be slow to speak and slow to anger—in other words, to respond and not to react. He guides us in this way because he knows that reacting is likely to hurt others and also hurt ourselves.

In fact, God gives us all sorts of guidance that will help us experience a full and abundant life. We just need to trust that we’ll be most blessed when we do life his way and not our own. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to explore how you can receive God’s good counsel by inviting him into your life.

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