The Difference Between Responding and Reacting

Have you ever seriously regretted how you handed a situation?

Ever wanted to immediately take back what you said? Wanted to turn back time on saying a hurtful comment or a stinging insult?

I know I have. In fact, many of us have. Sometimes in the interactions we have with others, we say things that we don’t ultimately mean to someone we care about.

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When it comes to having healthy friendships and relationships, there is no doubt that we need to be mindful about what we say to one another. Our words carry power — and how we react and respond to each other matters. One helpful way to be more mindful of how we interact with one another is by differentiating how we respond versus how we react.

If you’ve ever felt: regretful, ashamed, guilty, and/or remorseful after saying something hurtful to a loved one, a colleague or even a stranger, there’s a chance that you may have reacted to a situation.

When we are reactive, a lot of times we are acting on emotions that exist for us on the surface. More often than not in our relationships, we can feel frustrated, angry, triggered and/or charged with the person we are speaking with. It could of been something they said or they did (or something they didn’t say or do), in combination with our invisible luggage that causes us to feel these feelings.

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When these emotions make an appearance, it can happen suddenly. Let’s keep referring to this as feelings showing up on a “surface-level”. “Surface-level” emotions are easily accessible — they are right there, easy to touch, hold on to, and ya know, feel. So, we will do just that, grab one and feeeeel it. And this can result in us reacting in ways like exploding, jumping to conclusions, insulting, name-calling, etc.

Reacting can worsen if you are experiencing issues with your mental health and/or issues related to substance use/abuse. Reacting can worsen if these issues are not being addressed.

Reacting can look like:

  • Again, feeling regretful, ashamed, guilty, and/or remorseful after saying something hurtful to a loved one, a colleague or even a stranger
  • Sometimes not remembering how or what caused you to react strongly to a situation
  • Having trouble calming yourself down and/or need help from others to calm down
  • Sometimes not feeling in control of your emotions

While every once in a while, human beings are all prone to react in situations , it might be time to make some changes if you are habitually reacting to the conflicts, problems and interactions that come up in your life and in your relationships.

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This brings us to the practice of responding, which is our ability to mindfully, thoughtfully and intentionally interact with others.

One of the biggest differences between responding and reacting is being aware of (and doing something about) those surface-level emotions.

Instead of reaching for (and running with) what’s coming up for us on the surface, we respond to situations by noticing, handling and managing those emotions on the surface and what’s underneath. So let’s break that down.

When you are responding, you are:

  1. Noticing and identifying what “surface-level” emotions are coming up for you. (Ask yourself: how do you know these emotions are coming up for me? What’s happening with my body?)
  2. Taking a moment to pause and self-regulate to manage those emotions
  3. Consider what other emotions might be hiding underneath the surface and need your attention
  4. Validate what you are feeling and then move forward with responding

Here’s an example of what responding could look like between two loved ones:

Morgan and Alex were having a tough conversation about their relationship. Morgan quietly told Alex, “I really wish you would listen to me. Sometimes I just feel like you are just thinking of what to say next, instead of hearing what I have to say.”

Alex was furious. The “surface-level” emotions that she was feeling were anger and frustration — she hated being accused of being a poor listener. It was something that her estranged sister would regularly accuse her of in her childhood.

Alex knew that she felt furious by what Morgan said, because she felt her ears getting hot and her heart was beating quickly. Alex made the choice to pause and not accuse Morgan of always finding problems in their relationship. 

Alex then paused, drew in a long breath and exhaled to calm herself down. She said to Morgan slowly, “Look, I need a second.” Alex did not want to say something hurtful to Morgan, and needed a second to cool off.

When her heartbeat slowed down after taking a few deep breaths, Alex realized that while on the surface she felt angry with what Morgan said, underneath her anger was her fear of disappointing her partner. She did not want to lose Morgan and she did want to be a good listener.

“I hear you Morgan,” Alex then replied. “And I want to be there for you. Want to try this again?

Yall, this. takes. practice. Many of us were not taught how to do this and did not have this modeled for us.

It may take some time to learn how to respond instead of react. Know that in consciously choosing to respond rather than react, you are interrupting a pattern that may have existed for a majority of your life. That’s a lot! Self compassion, patience and practice will take you a long way with being able to respond, rather than react.

What do you think the differences are between responding and reacting?


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