Learn to Respond, Not React
‘Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Post written by Leo Babauta.
Much of our lives is spent in reaction to others and to events around us. The problem is that these reactions might not always be the best course of action, and as a result, they can make others unhappy, make things worse for us, make the situation worse.
Why would we want to make things worse?
The truth is, we often react without thinking. It’s a gut reaction, often based on fear and insecurities, and it’s not the most rational or appropriate way to act. Responding, on the other hand, is taking the situation in, and deciding the best course of action based on values such as reason, compassion, cooperation, etc.
Let’s take a quick example:
- React: Your child breaks something. You immediately react by getting angry, perhaps yelling, upsetting the child and yourself, worsening your relationship, not making anything better.
- Respond: Your child breaks something. You notice your anger reaction, but pause, take a breath, and consider the situation. First response is to see if your child is OK — is she hurt, scared? Second, realize that the object that is broken, in the larger view, is not that important. Let it go, adjust to a world without it. Third, help her clean up, make a game of it, show her that mistakes happen and that it’s not something to dwell on. Fourth, calmly talk about how to avoid mistakes like that in the future, and give her a hug.
This choice presents itself to us all the time, whether it’s our mother nagging us, our co-worker being rude, our husband not being kind enough, and so on. There will always be external events that bother us, but if we learn to respond and not just react, we can make things better and not worse.
How to Learn to Respond
The main thing to learn is mindfulness and the pause.
Mindfulness means watching ourselves when something happens that might normally upset us or trigger some kind of emotional reaction. Pay close attention to how our minds react.
Then pause. We don’t have to act immediately, just because we have an internal reaction. We can pause, not act, breathe. We can watch this urge to act irrationally arise, then let it go away. Sometimes that takes a few seconds, other times it means we should remove ourselves politely from the situation and let ourselves cool down before we respond.
Watch the reaction go away.
Now consider what the most intelligent, compassionate response might be. What can we do that will help our relationship, teach, build a better team or partnership, make the situation better, calm everyone down, including ourselves?
At first, you might mess up. But in time, you’ll learn to watch this reaction, and you’ll get better at the pause. Don’t fret if you mess up — just resolve to be more mindful when it happens next time. Take note of what happened to trigger your reaction, and pay attention when something like that happens again.
Be mindful, pause, then consider a thoughtful, compassionate response.