Reaction vs. Response

‘Whoosh!’ What a great way to express what happens to our emotions when we initially react to something we see as a threat or a scourge. Our instincts take over, and our blindingly fast emotions and reactions ride those instinctive waves.  

The secret is not to get caught in and perpetuate that whoosh. The secret is to take a breath, simmer down, reflect, and then respond – purposefully – with the end goal in mind. This will go a long way toward resolving the issue. At a minimum, it will help you absorb it and live with it more successfully.  

Here’s how you can do that. 

First: Breathe.  

Deep breathing calms our systems. It tells our bodies there is no reason to ‘fight or flight’. So, take three deep breaths. Your shoulders will drop; your breathing will slow; you’ll feel more grounded. Without a doubt, it’s the fastest way we humans have of regaining a sense of steadiness.  

Next: Reframe  

In essence, this is negotiating with your story (and beliefs) about the situation. To help you do this, if you have the luxury of time on your side, consider a temporary distraction to “make space” and help you put the situation in perspective. Put on your earphones and listen to music; watch a funny video; go for a walk and look at the trees, the sky, the birds.  

Some people find it helpful not telling anyone – yet – what happened before they distract themselves, otherwise that person might just fuel the initial whoosh of emotion.  

Others find it very helpful to talk to someone about it. But here’s our advice if you choose to do that: tell them what you want from them. Usually, most of us are not asking others to solve our problem for us; we simply want them to hear us out and empathize with us.  

If you feel the need to tell someone what happened, we suggest picking just one person and making it brief. Why? Talking about it repeatedly risks increasing your sense of outrage or hurt. Besides, if you wait until you’ve done some deep breathing and reframed the situation, you’ll be calmer, and this will help you rediscover your balance sooner.  

(As a footnote: Once you’ve resolved it in your own mind, once you’ve given yourself a chance to find some balance and peace with the situation, repeat the story as often as you like; just don’t do it initially.) 

As you seek to reframe the situation, it’s okay to mull over what happened and (at least initially) convince yourself you were right. You’ve been slogging through a quagmire of emotions trying to find firm footing. Believing we’re right about something (or at least that your viewpoint is legitimate at that point in time) makes most of us feel steadier.  

But don’t simply stay in the place that says “I’m right and they are wrong. I’m good and they are bad.” Because there are usually many different legitimate ways to look at a situation, and most of us do the best we can with what we’ve got in most situations. So, we recommend you start by assuming that is the case for the other people who have taken the actions you’re upset about. It’s possible that they are acting with malicious intent (or that they simply don’t care and/or haven’t thought about the impact on others), but it’s less likely than our worst-case assumptions would have us believe.  

Once you regain that steady sense of ‘the everyday you’, once you regain a modicum of personal well-being, imagine yourself back in the situation; but this time, view what happened from another perspective.  

Allow the other person or people who were involved to tell their story (either in reality or in your mind). Allow them to be right in their decisions about what took place; for contrary to what most people believe, allowing others to be right doesn’t diminish us; it makes us feel mature and wise; it fills us with emotional intelligence, and feeling and thinking and seeing ourselves in that way fills us with power.  

Seeing things from someone else’s point of view gives us understanding; it helps us recognize and respect differences; and as we imagine how others might feel in that situation, we are filled with empathy.  

Last? Choose your response. 

People come to terms with or resolve difficult situations in different ways and at different times. Some of us prefer to talk things out with the person or people involved (or with a 3rd party). Others prefer to let time do its healing work and so will distance themselves for a while. Still others are happy just knowing they’ve made peace with everything in their own minds. A suggestion though: If you’re not the ‘talk it out’ kind of person, or if you prefer to distance yourself for a time, that’s okay, but do let the group or other person know that you’re resolving things and that you just need some time.  

Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who can quickly resolve an issue but are dealing with someone who needs time, curb your defensiveness and offer patience instead.  

So do your best to take three breaths, reflect to reframe, and then respond. In our experience, this will serve you well. And as it happens, it will help others too.  


  1. I have been following the Common Outlook newsletter for close to a decade, now, after having a negotiation skills training with Peter Hiddema. I voraciously consume every possible material on communication, negotiation and difficult conversation skills, and it still amazes me that Common Outlook always brings a fresh insight into my constant growing library on these subjects. No wondering why this is one of the two newsletter I allow in my inbox.

    1. Dear Carlos, Thank you so much for your kind words. Much appreciated! It is truly heartening to hear that you still find value in the Newsletter’s content after all these years. Many thanks. Here’s to lifelong learning for us all.

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