In my life, I spend a lot of time reacting. For example, I might take on too much at work and get stressed out, so I react by going the opposite direction and not talking to anyone for a few days. Or I might start to feel lonely, so I react by calling a bunch of people until I find someone to hang out with. If something happens in my life that is unpleasant, I tend to react by trying to find something to distract me.
A lot of my actions and behaviors are a reaction to something else. Sometimes I even bounce back and forth, reacting to my reaction. It’s not a pleasant way to live my life, and sometimes it feels like I’m not in control.
So what’s the alternative? One thing I’m trying to work on is to respond rather than react. Here’s the difference:
- Reacting is fast; responding is slow. When I react, I do it right away. It’s a quick decision, a snap judgment. When I respond, I take my time. It’s a slower process. There is some time and space between my urge to act and my action.
- Reacting is unconscious; responding is conscious. When I react, it’s almost as if there’s something unconscious pushing me toward a certain direction. I don’t do much thinking about it. When I respond, it’s a conscious process. I weigh my options and then move forward.
- Reacting is extreme; responding is balanced. When I react, I tend to go to extremes. I do something and do it all the way. Sometimes I even go overboard. When I respond, it’s usually more balanced. I might take a small step in one direction and then see how it goes.
- The choice to react happens in my own head; responding often involves other people. When I react, I don’t get any feedback from others. There isn’t enough time, I just make a decision and go with it. When I respond, I often have the chance to ask other people in my life what they think. I’m able to get feedback and incorporate it into my response.
So how do we learn to respond rather than react?
Here are 4 steps that have helped me. (Remember the acronym PLAN.)
- When you experience an unpleasant feeling, or an urge to do something, pause. Take some time to think about the situation and what you want to do. Make it a normal part of your life to not make decisions right away. Instead, give yourself some time to think and reflect. I try to have a 15-minute rule. When I get the urge to do something, I wait 15 minutes. Then if I still want to do it, I can go ahead and do so. For larger decisions, you might want to make a 24-hour rule.
- One of the problems with reacting is there might be something we can learn from our urges and feelings. They might have something to teach us about our life. If you react right away to escape these feelings, you might be missing out on an important learning opportunity. Instead, make a commitment to consider your urges and feelings, and think about whether they might have something to teach you.
- There might be something about our situation that we just aren’t able to see because we’re too immersed in it. It’s important to have people in our lives we can call up and ask their opinion about what it happening. Make a commitment to call at least one person and ask their thoughts on the situation before making a decision. Tell them the situation, how you are feeling, and what you plan to do. Get their unbiased opinion.
- What’s the next step? If you have paused, learned, and asked, you probably have a good idea what the next step is. One final thought about next steps is to consider whether you might make a small next step. Often large, sweeping changes tend to be more in line with reacting rather than responding. Thoughtful responses are usually more balanced. So when deciding on the next step, ask yourself: Is this balanced? Is this a small step in the direction I want to go? Sometimes it is a good idea to make a tiny change, and then reevaluate the decision at a later date. You can always make further adjustments.
Discussion: When things happen in your life, do you tend to react or respond? Next time you experience an unpleasant emotion or an urge to do something, try to walk through the four PLAN steps: Pause, Learn, Ask, Next.