Being Reactive vs. Responsive

reactive vs responsive flow chart

In a biological sense, the term response falls into the self-awareness domain. If something is self-aware, it can react to a stimulus. We see this in the animal world through what we call instinct. Brain based research shows that we can condition ourselves to react to a stimulus therefore saving precious time. This was useful when our caveman ancestors were at the watering hole and heard a rustling noise behind them. A conditioned reaction allowed them to stay ahead of danger and out of the food chain.

Fast forward a few thousand years and we still have this "fight or flight" pathway in our brain. Although we have effectively taken ourselves out of the food chain, the perception of threat is still present. This pathway, known as the low road, bypasses the part of the brain responsible for working memory. Working memory is located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain and allows us to process information in real time rather than rely on past experiences.

Teenagers make great examples in explaining working memory. Their pre-frontal cortex is not fully formed. This coupled with their lack of life experience makes for interesting reactions. You may watch a teenager react to a situation and later ask them "why would you do that?" They might answer with an "I don't know." A reaction is exactly that. It is an instant action triggered by a stimulus.

When we say we respond to a situation, we are moving away from the self-awareness domain and into the self-management domain. This is to say that we are moving beyond the awareness to protect ourselves and more into the realm of management of the actual situation. A few key factors distinguish a reaction from a response. A reaction is that instant action triggered by a stimulus. A response is a bit more involved and includes four parts (Pause, Think, Choose and Act.)

The first step that differentiates a response from a reaction is pausing. This gives you time to take in what's actually happening and allows your pre-frontal cortex to do its job. Next is to think about the situation. Come up with options for the issue. Taking those options to the choice stage gives us the freedom to decide what works best for the situation. Finally we have the option to act on our choice.

These four steps can help create an appropriate response with more productive results. Let's set up a simple example of the two pathways in action. The stimulus in this example is a very loud noise "BANG!!" A reaction may be to scream. A response may involve stopping what you're doing to look around and listen for where the noise originated. You may discover there was a car accident and the choices you give yourself are to: see if anyone needs help, call the authorities or stay out of the situation. From there you can act on these actions.

The scream did not necessarily help the situation. Your response gives you the freedom and power to shape the world around you. The challenge now is to ask if you have conditioned yourself to be reactive or responsive to a situation. Using the responsive pathway, how can you change your role in all aspects of life whether it's at work, at home or in social situations?