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  • Tom Goldstein

From Reactive to Choiceful: Mastering the Essential Art of Responding


In today's fast-paced world, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of reacting rather than thoughtfully responding to situations. The difference between reacting and responding, though subtle, can significantly impact your relationships, mental health, and overall well-being. This article will explore the distinction between the two, the role of emotions in reactive behaviour, strategies to foster more choiceful responses, and the benefits of making this shift. Choiceful responding can have many benefits, including better decision-making, improved relationships, and reduced stress and anxiety. By responding in a thoughtful and deliberate way, we can avoid impulsive reactions that may cause more harm than good.


Understanding Reacting vs. Responding

Reacting is an instinctual, automatic response to a stimulus, often driven by emotions. It usually occurs without much thought or consideration of the consequences. For example, if someone criticises your work, you might feel hurt and immediately lash out defensively.

Responding, on the other hand, involves taking a moment to process the situation, weigh your options, and choose an appropriate course of action. Using the previous example, a thoughtful response might involve asking for specific feedback to improve your work or calmly addressing the critique.


The Emotional Roots of Reactivity

Reactivity is often linked to our emotions. When we experience strong emotions like anger, fear, or sadness, our brain's limbic system takes charge, triggering a fight, flight, or freeze response. This instinctual reaction has evolutionary roots, as it helped our ancestors survive immediate threats. However, in modern-day situations, this automatic response often leads to counterproductive behaviours. The move to choiceful responding requires us to bring our pre-frontal cortex back online and keep it online. This gives us access to our rational thinking and enables us to be aware of and work with our emotions rather than reacting directly from them.


To cultivate more choiceful responding, consider these 6 practices:

  1. Mindfulness: Becoming aware of your emotions and thoughts allows you to recognise when you're reacting and gives you the opportunity to pause before responding. Practising mindfulness meditation can help you develop this skill of being aware internally and externally at the same time. For example, when faced with a rude comment from a colleague, you might notice your anger rising and choose to take a deep breath before addressing the issue calmly.

  2. Emotional Regulation: Learning to manage your emotions can help prevent reactive behaviour. Techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualisation can help you regain control during emotionally charged moments.

  3. Active Listening: When engaged in a conversation, especially during conflicts, focus on truly understanding the other person's perspective instead of planning your rebuttal. This can help you respond more thoughtfully and productively.

  4. Develop Empathy: Cultivating empathy helps you connect with others and understand their emotions and motivations. This understanding can lead to more compassionate, choiceful responses in challenging situations.

  5. Ask more questions: Often, we react impulsively based on our assumptions, without taking the time to understand the situation and other perspectives fully. Instead, we can practice a technique called "perception checking." Try asking curious questions about their reasoning or thought process instead of jumping to conclusions and immediately pointing out their mistakes. It’s important to do this with a kind, open, curious “beginners mind” so that the other person doesn’t feel threatened.

  6. Take a Break: If you feel overwhelmed, take a step back from the situation. This break can provide you with the space needed to assess your emotions and respond more effectively.


Moving from reactive to choiceful responding offers several benefits:

  1. Improved Relationships: Thoughtful, empathetic responses promote understanding and collaboration, leading to stronger personal and professional relationships.

  2. Greater Emotional Well-being: Being able to regulate your emotions and respond intentionally can reduce stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions.

  3. Enhanced Problem-solving: Choiceful responding allows you to assess situations more objectively, making it easier to identify and implement effective solutions.

  4. Personal Growth: Developing the ability to respond thoughtfully helps you become more self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and resilient.


Situational examples of reactive vs choiceful responding

The following 5 scenarios provide some more concrete examples, from home and work life, on what it means to move from Reactive to Choiceful.


Situation 1: Family Dinner

Reactive: Jane's teenage daughter, Emma, criticises her cooking, saying it's too bland. Jane, feeling hurt and disrespected, snaps back at Emma, saying she should cook her own dinner if she doesn't like it. This leads to a heated argument between mother and daughter, causing tension in the family.


Choiceful: When Emma criticises her cooking, Jane takes a deep breath and calmly asks Emma for suggestions on how to improve the meal. Emma shares her preferences, and they agree to try a new recipe together next time. This response fosters a positive learning experience and strengthens their relationship.


Situation 2: Project Deadline

Reactive: Tom, a project manager, receives an email from his team member, Sarah, stating that she will miss an important deadline. Feeling frustrated and anxious, Tom immediately calls Sarah and angrily demands an explanation. Sarah becomes defensive, and their conversation quickly turns unproductive and hostile.


Choiceful: Upon receiving Sarah's email, Tom takes a moment to collect his thoughts and composes a response asking for more information about the situation. They schedule a meeting to discuss the issue, during which Tom listens to Sarah's challenges and together, they find a solution to get the project back on track. This response promotes problem-solving and teamwork.


Situation 3: Morning Routine

Reactive: Mike wakes up late for work and rushes to get ready. His partner, Lisa, asks him to help with their child's breakfast. Already stressed, Mike snaps at Lisa, saying he doesn't have time for that. This leads to an argument and both of them starting their day on a negative note.


Choiceful: When Lisa asks for help, Mike takes a deep breath, acknowledges his stress, and calmly explains that he's running late for work. He suggests that they discuss ways to streamline their morning routine later that evening. Lisa understands, and they agree to work together to improve their mornings. This response avoids conflict and promotes collaboration.


Situation 4: Managing Work Overload in a High-Tech IT Company

Reactive: In a high-tech IT company, Claire, the department manager, notices her team is struggling with an overwhelming workload due to an influx of new projects. She sees her team members working long hours and becoming increasingly stressed. Claire, feeling the pressure to meet deadlines, pushes her team harder, demanding that they work even longer hours to complete the tasks. This approach leads to burnout, low morale, and a decline in the quality of work.


Choiceful: Claire recognises the challenges her team is facing due to the volume and intensity of work. Instead of pushing them harder, she schedules a team meeting to discuss the current workload and identify the most critical tasks. She collaborates with her team to develop a prioritisation plan and advocates for additional resources, such as hiring temporary staff or reallocating tasks to other departments. Claire also encourages her team to take breaks and maintain a healthy work-life balance. This choiceful response promotes a supportive work environment, reduces stress, and ultimately leads to better project outcomes.


Situation 5: CEO Struggling with Diverse Communication Styles

Reactive: Olivia, the CEO of a tech company, is known for her direct and assertive communication style. During a strategy meeting, she encounters a team member, Daniel, who has a more reserved and diplomatic approach to presenting his ideas. Feeling irritated by the difference in communication styles, Olivia becomes impatient and dismissive, undermining Daniel's confidence and discouraging him from sharing his valuable insights. The atmosphere in the meeting becomes tense, and other team members hesitate to voice their opinions, limiting the diversity of ideas.


Choiceful: Recognising the difference in communication styles between herself and Daniel, Olivia takes a moment to appreciate the value of diverse perspectives within the team. Instead of dismissing Daniel's approach, she actively listens to his ideas and encourages him to elaborate further. By adapting her communication style to better suit Daniel's, Olivia creates an inclusive environment where all team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. This choiceful response promotes a collaborative and innovative atmosphere, ultimately leading to better decision-making and a stronger company culture.


Conclusion

The journey from reactive to choiceful responding requires practice and patience. By embracing mindfulness, emotional regulation, active listening, empathy, and other strategies, you can cultivate the ability to respond intentionally, even in the most challenging situations. In doing so, you'll experience greater emotional well-being, improved relationships, and a more fulfilling life.

 

Further reading:

1. Forbes Coaches Council. (2016). 12 Techniques To Be Less Reactive And More Intentional With Workplace Communication. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2016/05/04/12-techniques-to-be-less-reactive-and-more-intentional-with-workplace-communication/?sh=406eceb8301d

2. Harvard Business Review. (2023). How to Become More Adaptable in Challenging Situations. https://hbr.org/2023/03/how-to-become-more-adaptable-in-challenging-situations

3. Reyes, R. (2013). How to Use Emotion Regulation Coping Skills. Mindfulness Muse. https://www.mindfulnessmuse.com/dialectical-behavior-therapy/how-to-use-emotion-regulation-coping-skills

4. P. Middleton. (2021). The Difference Between Reactive and Creative Mindsets. Curious. https://medium.com/curious/the-difference-between-reactive-and-creative-mindsets-50ee6af15ca0

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