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Respond Or React??

This article came about in much the same way as most other great historic inspiration: with a dear friend over a cup of coffee.


As I sat listening to my friend talk about his day, he made a comment, like many of his comments, that I found rather profound.  I paraphrase his comment, lest he call me on the accuracy of my quote, that: “I can either React to what is happening, or Respond to it…. I choose to Respond.”


WOW!  What and interesting idea and a powerful concept.  Wait a second…  What’s the difference?  I had my own ideas, but I asked him for his interpretation.  My friend went on to respond (or did he React?) by explaining that a “reaction” for him was an instant thing- his immediate “Emotional response to what was being said or done….”  Whereas a “response” was a more analytical approach wherein he would think about what was said, what the attempted communication or action was trying to achieve; and he would then formulate a more intelligent reply that was in direct relationship to the original communication or experience.




As a hypnotist and NLPer, I made some jumps in logic and further connections as to what makes the difference in those two words.  “React” comes from two word roots:  Re, meaning BACK, and agere "to do, act." It was originally scientific a scientific term.  “Respond” also comes from two root words: Re- meaning Back, and Spondere meaning “To Pledge.”  Even in the etymological history of these words we see a startling difference in the type of mental/physical/emotional processing used in each of these.


Reactions are, in essence, a firing off of what NLP calls Anchors.  Anchors are like the bell that rang and made Pavlov’s beloved pooch drool.  They are signals, Post Hypnotic Suggestions, that we give ourselves to relive a certain set of pre-recorded memories.  There are some who say that after the age at 19 we have had every original experience we will ever have, and thereafter, everything we experience is based the memories of those experiences.  Others will Argue we have almost NO first time sensory experiences after the age of 7.


Studies have been done that showed that the first time you put your hand on a hot stove, you tend to get a more serious burn than the NEXT time you accidentally do so… Why is that?  Well, one set of experiments revealed that when you place your hand on a  hot stove, the signal of pain has to travel up the nerve tract from the hand, up the arm, past the shoulder, to the brain, where it is then responded to with a  series of instructions to move the hand out of harms way.  That set of instructions then has to travel from the brain, down the shoulder, to the arm and hand, thus causing the muscles to contract and pull the hand away.  THE SECOND TIME this same thing happens, the signal from the burning hand does NOT make it all the way to the brain.  The signal generally makes it only as far as the shoulder, or in some instances ONLY as far as the muscles that need to move, before the impulse flashes back and yanks the hand away.  The brain is not directly involved in the decision making process that results in movement.


Here we have a classic example of Reacting V/s Responding.  In the first instance, the brain had to (in essence) examine the sensory info that came in, and make a decision of what was the most sensible way to deal with it.  In the second instance, the impulse triggered a REACTION.  In this specific case, a reaction might be a very desirable things as it means quicker response time and less of a burn.  Suppose however, that this reaction occurred no matter what the circumstance.  Suppose that the subject in question was a 30 years old and having a wart frozen off a finger.  If the signal of burning was the same on a  sensory level, and the impulses sent up the hand continued to “REACT” without any thought of the context or the affects thereof, this person would repeatedly yank their hand away thus preventing needed medical treatment and possibly incurring further injury to himself and his Doctor.


Most people REACT to their entire lives.  It happens something like this:  I have had a day at work, I have a set of experiences and memories of other such days.  I have a lifetime of experiences with people. I have a lifetime of memories of happiness or unhappiness or a mixture of both.  A woman walks up to me and starts yelling at me because her appointment is late. Instantly, a part of my mind unbeknownst to me is calling up all the memories of being yelled at.  It is reviewing a series of filing cabinet drawers with “Yelling women” and takes me back to a memory as a child when I was screamed at by my mother, it makes me want to cry.  Quickly then that crying impulse is researched in those filing cabinets and I find the last time I cried and how angry I was.. I vowed never to cry.  That’s it, Damn it!  I hate this woman!!!! A simplified example, but you get the idea.


All of that happens in a split second- LESS than a split second in fact, and totally unconsciously.  Now there are all these emotionally charged things that have been added to the pot.  I get angry, I yell back, I am rude to her…..  THAT is a classic reaction and most of us will agree that it is NOT the way we want to function in the workplace or in many places in our lives.


“React”- to do back.  You hit me, I’m going to hit you.  You cheated so I’ll cheat.  You made me mad, so I’ll break your favorite doll.  You yelled at me, so I will yell back.


“Respond”- to pledge back. Pledge comes from plegan "to guarantee" or "vouch for", from a Germanic word meaning "have responsibility for."  When we respond, we are vouching for our actions.  We are taking responsibility for examining what has been said or done, why, as well as taking a moment to set aside our own emotional or historically learned content and try to respond in a way that will be constructive for both parties involved.


Put another way, a reaction is an unconscious, emotional reply based  mainly upon kinesthetics and firing of anchors: Classic Conditioning.  A response is a more external approach disassociated from the situation in an almost 3rd party observer-like way for at least a portion of the interaction. It allows you as the responder to be and behave in an ORIGINAL way more unique to this circumstance.


Surely there are places and times to REACT.  But where and HOW in your own life would you prefer to RESPOND.  Next month we will talk about some techniques to help you do just that!




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