February 20

Reacting Versus Responding: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?


Do you react or respond? It might seem like splitting hairs, but there is a huge difference between reacting and responding. In this post, we’ll look at the subtle but important difference between reacting versus responding, and why you need to know the difference.

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So many people I have coached over the years struggled to manage their emotions well at times when it mattered most.

A huge part of successfully creating the results we want in all areas of our life comes down to our ability to manage our emotions effectively when it really counts.

Part of that process is to learn the difference between reacting versus responding.

And learning the difference between these two is extremely important because it will change your tendency to simply react, which in turn will most likely result in an easier and far more successful life.

Conversely, however, when we simply go through life reacting to things that trigger certain emotions in us, can have a devastating effect on our ability to create positive, lasting results.

Whether that’s in our career, love life, parenting, friendships, and so on.

So, what is the main difference between reacting versus responding?

What is a working definition that we can use to guide us to know the difference?

Simply put …

Reacting is a spontaneous reaction that is driven by emotion. A response is a more thoughtful, logical, intelligent response.

Now, with that in mind, it is important to understand that we all react from time to time when at other times we’re more likely to respond instead.

That’s just how it goes for many of us, it seems.

So, this is not at all or nothing situation where you only do the one or just the other.

However, we can train ourselves to do more of the one than the other.

Because there is clearly more benefit in learning how to respond to situations versus simply reacting from an unhelpful emotional state to whatever has triggered it.

Another idea to keep in mind is that it seems like,

Successful tend to people respond whereas unsuccessful people tend to react.

And again, this applies to all areas of life.

We are not just talking about financial success, but successfully creating all kinds of results in the various areas of our lives.

So, before we consider a few more differences between reacting versus responding, let me ask you this first …

What about you?

Do you think that you mostly react or respond?

And if you think that you mostly react, why is that?

Conversely, if you’re someone who is more prone to respond, why is that?

What are some of the lessons you can learn from yourself?

Or perhaps from experiences in the past?

And while you reflect on those, let’s quickly look at a few more differences for you to consider, if you’re still unsure which way you tend to go.

Consider these differences between reacting versus responding:

A reaction lacks thought.

Reactions tend to be more instinctive and lack any thought or analysis.

Our brains are capable of making good decisions, if we actually give different situations some thought and consideration, before simply reacting.

In fact, as a human, your greatest advantage over other creatures in the world is your ability to think, rather than just react instinctively.

So, you need to start using it to your advantage.

Reactions are an evolutionary response designed to increase comfort all release pressure in the very short term.

However, reacting is rarely the optimal response in most situations, though.

A reaction seeks to soothe discomfort without involving the intellect.

And I’m sure you can appreciate just how ineffective that could be in the modern-day world for most of the daily interactions we tend to have.

I am of course excluding certain environments and situations where reacting is probably the best survival response to everyday life (e.g. in war zones).

Another distinguishable difference between reacting versus responding is that …

A reaction is quick.

Reactions are often quick, bordering on instantaneous.

Again, there is little thought.

But quick decisions are rarely as effective as those that were made patiently and carefully with a fair bit of consideration.

As a general rule, the less time you spend on something, the worse you’ll do it.

Which leads us to the point that if you’re someone who tends to react very quickly, you will need to come up with a strategy to “buy yourself some time” before reacting.

If you know that certain things at home trigger you very quickly, you will have to create a plan of response whenever those situations come up.

You can, of course, negotiate this with your partner beforehand, but it’s important that you put something in place.

Almost like an evacuation plan.

Because every time you simply react on a whim because something triggered that, hurts your relationship and situation even more.

And following this behavioural pattern will eventually hurt the overall state of your relationship (and life) which could reach a point of no return.

We want to avoid that.

Another common difference between reacting versus responding is …

A reaction is aggressive.

Reactions are often counterstriking to an uncomfortable situation or trigger.

For example, you might make a harsh comment to your partner (criticise) who hurt your feelings.

The intention, however, of many of these reactions is usually to get back at someone.

It’s now not just about venting your feelings, but also retribution.

But when you react aggressively in most situations, especially your love life, you end up poisoning the well so to speak.

In the context of a love relationship or marriage, you’re essentially changing the nature of that relationship from being a “safe place” to a dangerous scratch that “dangerous environment” you need to tread lightly in.

And that’s never good for the long-term sustainability of a love relationship.

On the other side of aggression, we also note that …

A reaction is also defensive.

For example, you might have an argument with your boss and suddenly decide to quit your job.

A reaction like that is to instantly relieve anxiety, which works by the way.

The problem with defensive reaction(s) is that it can often be over-the-top and extreme in nature, which can also harm your long-term success.

For defensive reactions are almost always a huge mistake in the long term, whether in business life or personal life.

We also know that …

A reaction often creates additional difficulties.

As we have already pointed out, reactions often create additional challenges to whatever set them off in the first place.

The problem with that is that when you start sacrificing the long-term for the short term, you can bet your last dollar that there will be pain coming your way.

For example,

  • Quitting your job can result in financial challenges.
  • Yelling at your spouse creates relationship troubles.
  • Punching someone in the face can land you in prison.

The long and short of it is that reacting at inappropriate times is simply not worth the long-term risk.

But again, this is very contextual.

For if you live in a place where exploding bombs are part of your world, reacting and running away when you hear loud sounds or gunfire, is very appropriate in my opinion.

In that instance, it is survival first.

But in a marriage where your partner disagrees with your point of view … Not so much.

So, what is a response then?

What does it look like?

Firstly …

A response is intelligent and thoughtful.

A response tends to be a wise, productive response to a situation.

It is when you’re in an uncomfortable situation where you might be tempted to react, but you choose to override your impulse to have an emotional reaction and rather rationally respond to whatever is in front of you.

For example, you recognise that you don’t like your job, so you start looking for a new one before you just chuck it all in.

You make sure that you have a new job first before quitting the old one.

Or, someone insults you, so you decide to avoid them in the future, instead of just punching them in the face.

Again, it all comes down to considering the long-term risk is a short-term benefit.

It might feel good at the moment, but will it feel good in the long run?

Usually not.

A response uses your wisdom and considers the ultimate outcome from that course of action.

Another difference between reacting versus responding is that …

A response takes as much time as necessary.

A response isn’t rushed because when we rush we tend to make mistakes.

And some mistakes are irreversible.

So instead, you consciously decide to take the time necessary to make a smart decision or respond in the most appropriate way needed as the situation demands.

Why rush if you don’t have to?

Because the more thought you give a situation, the more likely you are to respond more effectively.

And isn’t that what you want?

Responding effectively so that you can succeed in achieving the result that you want?

Responding is also different from reacting in that …

A response lacks aggressiveness.

A response generally targets the best outcome.

It’s about getting the best result in the long run and not just about feeling good (vented) in the short term.

So, it doesn’t focus on retribution or use anger as a tool because it understands these are most often than not ineffective strategies to create long term gain or success.

It’s calm, cool, collected, and intelligent.

Conversely, aggressiveness often lacks logic and intelligence, and consequently, long-term successful results.

Finally, …

A response is constructive and seeks a solution.

Responses are solution-oriented and seek to improve the situation.

But reactions don’t have the same purpose.

It’s often more about feeling good in the short term while sacrificing long-term gain.

The fact of the matter is that your life should be better after a good response while your life is likely to be worse after a reaction.

Last Thoughts …

So, after reading all of this, where do you stand?

Do you react or respond mostly in life?

Also, can you now see how responding is the better option in most situations?

In fact, just consider the biggest mistakes you’ve made in your life so far, and ask yourself:

Did a reaction, instead of a response, lead to making that mistake?

Remember, that at the end of the day,

Responding uses the best parts of you to make a decision that’s conducive for the result you’re trying to achieve.

Conversely, reacting relies on your lower faculties and tend to worsen the situation.

So, avoid reacting in your life.

Learn to be patient and choose to respond instead.

Before you go …

Have you seen my latest online course yet?

Click here to learn more.



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About the author
Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is a relationship coach and the creator of The Relationship Guy – a Top Marriage Coaching and Relationship Advice Blog that helps married couples create healthier relationships. He is a trained professional counsellor and one of New Zealand’s top relationship bloggers and coaches. He’s been happily married for over fourteen years and is a dad of two.​ He also holds Bachelor and Master degrees in the field of Theology and is currently studying post-graduate Psychology at Massey University.

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