Respond Vs. React: How to Keep Your Cool in Times of Stress

respond vs. reactRespond vs. React: While these words may be similar in semantics, the difference between responding and reacting in stressful situations can be profound.

The difference between the two lies in a deep breath, a pause, or a brief moment of mindful presence. That moment can mean the difference between sending the entire situation or relationship soaring to greater heights, or falling down a slippery slope.

Let’s take a closer look at what the phrase respond vs. react represents, and learn some tools to help you respond to life’s circumstances – even when you’re triggered by stress – in a way that serves your well-being and everyone around you.

Reactions

Reactions are instinctual and stem from the subconscious mind. There’s no filtering process when you react in a situation – you’re running on auto-pilot. When you react, you do and say things without thinking first and don’t consider the implications of what you do or say – you just act. Reactions are like a puppy who hasn’t been trained. That untrained puppy is going to bark at every dog it sees, jump at every passing neighbor, and then he’ll eat your dinner … as soon as he sees it.

 

untrained puppy_react

Responses

Responses are more thoughtful. When you respond, you first explore in your mind the possible outcomes of your reply before saying a word. You may weigh the pros and cons and consider what would be best for yourself and others in the situation. Responses are more like the well-trained and well-behaved dog who comes when you call him, barks only when there’s a reason to bark, and waits patiently for his treat.

Would you rather be the type of leader who creates a calm and happy environment around you, like the well-behaved dog? Or the kind of leader who is a wild card – totally unpredictable and can cause the people around you stress, like the untrained puppy?

respond vs. react_DOgs

Being mindfully present when responding, means you can notice when something triggers you, and you continue to observe yourself as you have an emotional response to the situation. You are able to distance yourself from the experience and watch your mind react to it.

Take the Space When You’re Triggered

Adding that pause – that layer of observation, space, mindfulness, or whatever you want to call it – to the moment when you notice you’re triggered can mean the difference between strengthening or breaking a relationship, between a child, colleague, employee, or neighbor walking away feeling supported or disregarded. That space could mean a few deep breaths as you allow the reaction to fade and invite your balance to return. Or, it could mean taking a day or a week to cool down and reduce the charge of your emotional response. Every person and every situation will require a different way of doing this. Taking some space when you’re triggered gifts you the time to make a conscious decision on your next step.

Have you ever acted on your anger, said something you didn’t mean, or did something you later regretted?

If you answered Yes to the previous question, have you ever experienced anger that faded with time, where after you stepped back, you no longer felt the charge? (If you answered No to the previous question, I want to know your secret…)

The reason most, if not all of you answered Yes, to that second question is because for most of us, emotions aren’t static … they come and go, and your responses to situations can be greatly different from one moment to the very next.

Often when we hear something that we don’t like or is unexpected in some way, the natural tendency is to get defensive or judge the situation quickly. This is the natural tendency of the human mind – to run on auto-pilot. An NYU Study found that a person decides how trustworthy another person is – judges someone else – in as little as 30 milliseconds. This is not enough time to conscious register a face, but it’s enough time for the brain to make a judgment.

Creating a short pause before responding to the trigger can help you disconnect from those automatic reactions and change the course of the situation completely.

Here’s an acronym I came up with to help myself and my clients in those moments when we notice we’re triggered, and you can use it, too. It’s called P.L.A.C.E.:

P: Pause

As soon as you notice you’re triggered, take a breath. For example, let’s say you get cut off on the highway. Before you spin into the typical road rage and get bent out of shape, as soon as you notice your energy shift, take a deep breath.

L: Label Your Reaction

What are you feeling? Is it frustration, insecurity, or something else? In the example of getting cut off on the highway, are you angry? Anxious?

A: Ask Yourself Why

What actually triggered you? Was it the event itself, or could it have been related to a previous judgment you had or a common trigger? This step invites you to bring awareness to your common triggers and blind spots. Often, the emotion is tied to something below the surface of the actual event.

In our example of being cut off, it likely isn’t the person cutting you off that’s making you angry … it’s likely that you’re going to be late and don’t have time to spare. When we get cut off … we go into reaction and anger mode. When we cut someone else off … it’s because we’re late to pick up the kids or late to a meeting. We’ve all been on both sides.

C: Choose a Skillful Response

This is a critical step – it’s where all the magic happens in the process. As you take that step back, consider … what matters most in this situation? What is my goal? And how can I respond in a productive way – a way that will move me closer to my goal? In our example, the most important thing is likely to arrive at your destination safely, and the best way to respond is most likely to let it go and keep yourself collected and attentive for the drive.

E: Empower Yourself

Empower yourself to move forward from that place of awareness so that you can invite a healthier, more ecological outcome for everyone involved.

You are building that self-reflective capacity – strengthening that muscle within yourself to respond with purpose.

Let me be clear: This is not easy and it takes practice. It’s impossible to be unreactive 100% of the time (at least I have not yet figured out how to do this.) The goal is to decrease the amount of time you are reactive, and recover your centeredness more quickly. You must realize that you WILL go into auto-pilot when work gets stressful. The faster you can acknowledge when you’re triggered, the faster you’ll be able to regulate your nervous system, and get yourself back on track.

As with anything in life, it takes practice. Learning to respond vs. react is a continual process that gets easier over time. Rick Hanson is well known for the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In this context, it means that the more you can practice being calm and nonreactive and the more you invite responses rather than reactions, the better at it you become.

When you are not present and when you are stressed out, you caught up in it all and it is more difficult to choose your response. You can easily lose the boundary between your inner landscape and the context around you. When you are mindfully present, you have access to the space between the trigger and the response.

This is what this famous quote is referring to – this quote is often attributed to Viktor Frankl although he wasn’t the actual author.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  ~Author Unknown.

The bottom line is, you have a choice. In stressful situations, you can either respond or react. You cannot do both simultaneously. Which will you choose?

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

21 Comments

  1. Rich Jigarjian on July 31, 2018 at 8:06 am

    Thank you Melissa. This Mindful Minutes entry is particularly relevant to me right now.

    • Melissa Eisler on July 31, 2018 at 9:07 am

      Thanks for your comment, Rich. I hope your recovery is going well; please let me know if there is anything I can do to support you! From a distance, it seems that you are responding to life’s “lemons” with a lot of grace.

  2. Dan on August 29, 2018 at 9:29 am

    Pause for a Mindful cause! An important lesson that takes practice. But there is progress in practice. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jane on October 9, 2018 at 10:37 am

    Thank you Melissa!

    The idea of place is very helpful to me right now and I so appreciate the transformational context .

    With gratitude,

    • Melissa Eisler on October 9, 2018 at 11:22 am

      Thank you for sharing! I’m so glad it is helpful!

  4. Annand on July 6, 2019 at 6:00 am

    Fantastic at the same time very cool and also dynamic way of exploring and explaining the concept I hope it will really help me to take proper decisions and maintain relationships at all levels
    Thanks alot Melissa

  5. Rita M. on August 24, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    How do you notice the trigger? I recently reacted before I knew it, I said something I regretted. How does one find this space to think and turn it into a response? To me it seemed like the space came too late, after I already reacted. I’m sure the reaction comes from an under lying sorrow, that forms my perception. Maybe if I could “purge” the sorrow.

    I always hear and read that we have a choice. Right now, it doesn’t feel like it. I’d like to have that choice.

    • Melissa Eisler on August 26, 2019 at 12:30 pm

      Hi Rita. Thanks for your comment. The trick is to learn (through practice) to pause before you say something you later regret. In this pause, you have the choice. It can also be helpful to pay attention to how your body reacts. For example, if you notice a tightness in your chest or heat in your face or an ache in your neck before you say something you later regret, it would be important to look for that cue and take it as a reminder to pause. I hope this helps! Certainly, this does take practice but with practice, comes progress!
      ~ Melissa

  6. Suruj on September 23, 2019 at 11:00 pm

    Nice Article.

  7. Laurel Kirchner on March 31, 2020 at 11:13 am

    An incredibly well-done article with a perfect word-picture object lesson.. of course — you’re a teacher 🙂

    Very timely for these days of pandemic stress.

    The quote “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” is from Victor Frankl.

    Laurel

    • Melissa Eisler on March 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm

      Hi Laurel, I’m so glad you liked the article! Yes, this topic is certainly more relevant now than ever. 🙂 I hope you are staying healthy and safe out there! ~Melissa

  8. Laurel Kirchner on March 31, 2020 at 1:27 pm

    Sorry — I read now that you have done your homework and the quote is not from Frankl after all.

    • Melissa Eisler on March 31, 2020 at 4:39 pm

      No worries! Yes, this is a common misconception because the essence of the quote reflects Frankyl’s work so closely. I looked everywhere for the author and it turns out it is unknown!

  9. Danette Sievers on May 14, 2020 at 9:03 am

    Hello,
    Thank you for this information. I for one have had a serious problem with reacting over the years and it has and it continues to trouble me and others. I thoroughly understand the concept of responding, but I find that I react more commonly especially to stressful work and family situations.
    Thank you for this as I was just thinking about how I can improve.

    • Melissa Eisler on May 14, 2020 at 10:55 am

      Hi Danette! Thanks for your comment. You are not alone with being challenged by reacting to stressful exchanges! I hope the framework in this post helps you! Be well! ~Melissa

  10. Pasquee on August 7, 2020 at 9:03 am

    Hello,
    I think my weakness is when i have a stressful moment with the customers via phone call, right away i got a headache and i can’t make decision and think straight. What should i do when i experience again like this. ?

    • Melissa Eisler on August 7, 2020 at 10:33 am

      Hi Pasquee! Great question and I can relate to this! I recommend trying the PLACE exercise above when you feel this stressful moment arise! Let me know how it works for you! ~Melissa

  11. Jane on August 9, 2021 at 1:58 pm

    I have struggled with being reactionary in all facets of my life. I become consumed with negative emotion. I also feel the need to fix things immediately without thinking things through. I react often regretting the outcome. I searched the internet on this topic and came across this article. It is a game changer. My goal is to practice this in real life and try try try to use the P.L.A.C.E steps to propel me towards a more level headed, clearer thinking reaction. THANK YOU!!!!

    • Melissa Eisler on August 9, 2021 at 5:06 pm

      Thank you for sharing about your struggles, Jane. I hope the practice helps your mind become more clear and even-keeled! Best wishes!

  12. Isabella on November 3, 2021 at 2:52 pm

    This article was passed on through our health services dep…Well written and relatable!! However, much harder said than done. I have learned to be, what I call more “diplomatic” throughout my life, and have to agree that when not reactive, the responses out of my own self are ones I am happier with. I wish that it was easier to deal with the “why” we react to some things and can respond to others. I think we in life have little time to deal with what scars, pains, the different things we have to grieve, and no matter how great we try to be, “reacting” is sometimes just what we have left in the tank. I’m personally exhausted at times from having to “respond”, I beat myself up greatly knowing that I want to treat others like I want to be treated….but at times I think its even more about realizing that you have had no time to help yourself bc you’ve been better to others than you would have ever been to yourself…..

    • Melissa Eisler on November 3, 2021 at 3:02 pm

      Hi Isabella, thank you for your comment. I didn’t say this was easy! You’re right – it is much harder in practice. I believe if you give yourself space to process what comes your way and take care of yourself (including being kind to yourself), it is much easier to respond with conscious intention. This requires slowing down (which most of us are not very good at), and treating everyone with respect (including and especially ourselves!) The oxygen mask metaphor is often helpful here. 🙂

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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.