4 Keys to Responding Instead of Reacting. ~ Caroline Southwell

Via Caroline Southwell on Jul 17, 2014

conversation understand talk argument

I have some aware friends.

They are exceptional at being present and they are good at being called on their behaviour when it is out of line with who they say they are or want to be. They’re also exceptional at doing the same for me.

However in the last two days I had two different, amazing friends of mine tell me over a cuppa that they weren’t happy with something I said. One brought up something that happened over three months ago, that both he and his partner hadn’t liked. Let’s call him Kevin.

Kevin wanted to remind me about something I had said the last time he and his partner were at my place: “I don’t know if I ever told you that, but I wanted to let you know it was inappropriate.”

Interesting. Who decides what’s appropriate or inappropriate? By what standards do we measure this? And surely it’s different for every person? So how does that work with more than seven billion people interacting on a daily basis?

What I realized as I reflected upon this situation, is that two things were happening. First, he was communicating his boundaries to me about how he wants me to behave, particularly around his partner (that’s fair, but three months later?). Second, neither himself nor his partner were taking responsibility for how they’re reacting to what I said.

My view is that they were reacting this way because they viewed my behaviour as “bad” and he appeared to be telling me off the way parents tell off their children. How often we see this dynamic playing out in society between friends, colleagues, spouses and within countless other relationships.

And so I just sat there, somewhat gobsmacked that my friend was still missing this piece. For someone who had taught me so much about being present and not missing the lessons, he was so caught up in the story, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and his body language clearly told me it was not up for discussion.

Fast forward to yesterday and I was sitting with a couple of friends of mine. I knew my girlfriend, let’s call her Jesse, wanted to talk to me about something, as we’d been playing phone tag for a couple of days. As our guy friend left to go for a walk, Jesse launched straight into telling me that she didn’t like a text message I sent her, that it made her feel bad.

I hadn’t known what she wanted to talk about, but since we often do coaching and healing session swaps for one another, I figured she’d found some other piece that she wanted help clearing.

So when she said this, it very much came as a surprise. And as Jesse explained to me which words had “hurt her,” I found myself again looking with interest, as I had with my friend Kevin, wondering what the heck was going on.

Why was this beautiful, spirited, present, powerful woman behaving in a reactionary way and getting thrown by a well-thought out, gentle but honest text message? How was she going to cope when people didn’t take time to craft their thoughts before expressing them? How was she going to handle straight out criticism as she becomes more and more well known as a speaker?

I was grateful that Jesse was open, unlike Kevin, to explore why she was feeling the way she was. And in that space we got to look at these powerful questions and she then had the space to work out what she needed and wanted to do differently. She gave me the space to explain why I had use those particular words and what those words meant to me, and for her to express what those words meant to her.

And so we were able to come to a place of mutual understanding and respect through open and courageous dialogue, that my other friend Kevin hadn’t been open or willing to do.

What I came to realise was that in both instances they were working too much and not playing enough. They both felt trapped by their circumstances, particularly with the struggles they were having with money and didn’t feel they were allowed to fully express themselves in the way they most wanted to. This lead to them being tired, and more likely to react rather than respond in a calm, present and curious way.

texting communication

We all have a role to take in being responsible.

I am responsible for what comes out of my mouth, what’s typed by these fingers and all that these hands touch.

How others respond to what I express is their responsibility. I cannot make anyone feel anything. Likewise for you… all that you think and express in the world is your part and how you react or respond to what others do, that’s your part too. But what comes out of someone else’s mouth and how they react to what you say, that’s their part to play in this game we call life.

So four ways to help you respond rather than react are:

1. Get grounded.

There are many ways to do this, and the trick is to find a way you like to do it. Anything that helps you get in your body (like a form of exercise you love—running, dancing, sex with a loving partner) will definitely help. Consciously taking big deep breaths is probably the easiest and quickest way to bring you back to now, and get you back into your body and out of your head. Of course, getting outside in the sunshine, or the cold, with your feet on the grass (or the snow!) will also help you get in your body again.

2. Notice when you’re over analysing.

If you find yourself lying awake at night on a regular basis because you can’t switch your mind off, this is a good sign you’re over analysing (probably a lot of things!). So use the above ideas (or your own) to get grounded. The more grounded you become, the easier it is to get present, and then the more aware you become, the more you’ll catch yourself over analysing! Once you’re aware of something you can change it, not before.

3. When someone says something you don’t like, take a deep breath before speaking.

This also applies to writing since we have so many conversations via text message, email, Facebook messages and the like… and the idea is to give yourself time to notice how you’re feeling, how you’re reacting internally before you express it externally to the other person or people involved. So often our initial reaction gets us in trouble, it causes the other person or people to also get defensive and react, and then the cycle whirls out of control. You can stop this by taking a deep breath and considering your response, and what the other person might be trying to communicate.

4. Appreciate that everyone is different.

Your friends, family, colleagues, and even your acquaintances you bump into as you go through life will all have had different life experiences to you. The experiences we have and the way we interpret these experiences form our beliefs, our attitudes and ultimately our personality. So the next time someone says something that you totally disagree with and you find yourself feeling out of sorts, ask yourself if you can appreciate that this person is different from you. Not wrong necessarily, just different. Because after all, wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same?



Reacting Emotionally in a Relationship is Not a Mistake.


The Sacred Art of Listening: Nourishing Loving Relationships.



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Editor: Cat Beekmans

Photo: Rick & Brenda Beerhorst/Flickr, Jean-François Gornet/Flickr

About Caroline Southwell

Caroline Southwell is a speaker, facilitator, coach and writer. She loves teaching almost as much as she loves learning. She loves everything to do with the human mind and human behaviour. When she’s not coaching or teaching, you’ll find her running outdoors, finding places to dance or pondering the meaning of life.


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31 Responses to “4 Keys to Responding Instead of Reacting. ~ Caroline Southwell”

  1. sharonf says:

    I get what you are saying about people being responsible for how they feel about something you say or write. If that happened to me, however, I might be more open to feedback on how I am coming across. Especially if two different friends gave me feedback about how I was coming across in the span of one day. I'd also respect the enormous amount of courage it would take a person to give me that type of feedback. Maybe that is aspect of the article that impacted me most — the fact you have two friends who value your friendship and mentorship so much they'd be willing to take the risk of speaking their truth in order to return to harmony. I would value that level of honesty in a friendship so highly! I think there is some good advice in your article– perhaps taking a bit more responsibility in the face of courageous feedback is warranted.

    • Hi Sharon, thanks for your feedback. I agree. I am grateful that I have friends who feel safe to bring to me their concerns to me and are brave enough to voice how they are feeling, even if it takes time for them to do so. I wrote this article many months ago in order to process the lesson I saw at the time, and then upon reflection in the days afterwards I also asked myself "Where am I doing this? Where am I being emotionally reactive?". I have learnt that all behaviour I see in others is just a reflection of something else I also do. This is where the personal responsibility comes in I feel. The other wonderful lesson for me in this piece was when I found this article had not been published where I had originally sent it months ago, I re-read it through newer, wiser eyes and almost didn't send it here to be published it at all, as I have grown and changed so much in those short months. I, like you, saw that I was pointing the finger at others more than I was looking at my part in it. However, without censoring or changing, I decided the lessons were still worth sharing. Your feedback has reinforced the changes I could have made in line with who I now am. Thank you.

  2. Shasha says:

    Thank you for this perspective Caroline I think I really needed to read this today. I got into a Facebook ‘discussion’ the other day as I felt a friend was being more rude than necessary about a pop singer’s out of tune vocal recording. I’m not sure still what the agenda was, just felt the celebrity is a person too I guess! I never should have become involved, it was a pointless discussion really as it was not a message they were open to hearing and felt criticised. It’s good to be open and frank but I think you have to choose your discussions! Thanks again.

    • Shasha, I agree. Sometimes a discussion isn't worth entering into. Rather it's a matter of "picking your battles". So if it's worth fighting for and something you believe in strongly, I say go for it! Otherwise, going out and doing something that brings you joy, with friends who "get you" might be a better use of your time :)

  3. boliver392 says:

    good article..however I do have to say that yes, we are not responsible for how others take and respond to what we say…but we ARE responsible for what we say and some things may not be appropriate. There is nothing in the article indicating what was said…so maybe it WAS inappropriate or hurtful? We cant just go dropping whatever we want and expect others to work through it without a reaction, can we?

    • Hi boliver392. Great point. I definitely feel that we are responsible for what comes out of our mouth, not only in terms of WHAT we say, but also HOW we say it. And so often it's a matter of context and timing as well, for if we know a friend is under a massive amount of stress, that may not be the best time to challenge them. When it comes to what is "inappropriate" I find this differs from person to person depending on what they believe is "right and wrong". I have found that there really is no ONE right or wrong for any given situation, it's just contextual (depends on the situation and those involved). I see it all the time when I'm on stage. I could have 100 people in the room, say the same message and have 100 different responses to my message. Some will think it's "right" or amazing and others will think it's "wrong" or inappropriate or offence. It all depends on the person, and that's part of the message here, that we can't actually control whether the person receiving the message finds what we say inappropriate or hurtful, that bit's up to them. When it comes to just going around "dropping whatever we want and expect others to work through it", my initial response is "YES, and…". Yes, I think we can go around "dropping" our TRUTH in as loving and real way as possible. Yes, it will piss some people off and that's ok, they probably don't ACTUALLY love you for who you are. However, they probably will feel a reaction, I do. When someone I care about says something I find offence or hurtful or inappropriate to the situation, I still FEEL the reaction internally, I have just become better at PAUSING before I let it escape my mouth. I take time to consider whether they were intending to cause me pain, or if they were in fact just expressing their truth and it happened to run into some old "baggage" of mine. Because ultimately I know that anything someone says that upsets, offends, or hurts me is actually a gift as they've just helped me find some baggage I didn't know I was still carrying and that I can choose to let go of. And that's where my power is, in choosing what I do with what I'm given.

  4. carola says:

    Caroline, while I went through the lines from your article I only notice your reaction to other people perceptions.

    • Hi Carola, thanks for your observation. In this article I was exploring the difference between reacting and responding. I took time in both instances to consider their point of view and what was going on for them that created their reaction and responded from an emotionally calm place. Can you tell me what you saw or feel that is different?

  5. Kahysii says:

    I agree..typed comments are so monotone. Last month I typed a comment that it was exactly only six shopping months till Christmas.

    One response I received included the words ‘geez, clam down’. No exclamations, winky faces or other typed/inserted expression was used. I joked back about what I thought was a giggle moment…I commented back on the use of the word ‘clam’ by stating “haha. You told me to CLAM down” (hinting it was a typo for ‘calm’). The person replied “well, you need to.” To which I responded, “CLAM?” The communication ended there.

    I still feel affected being told, by my interpretation, to “STFU” and not to make comments about how excited I am (don’t get me wrong, I’m as poor as but still get excited when the 6 month countdown hits!) that I only have half a year to get my shit organised!

    What’s more confusing is that I thought this person loves Christmas, thinking of past posts from them about it. Now I find myself mentally dragging up posts and ghosts of Christmasses past and find the person greedy and selfish. That all it is to them and their siblings is to get super spoilt every year even though their family’s poor financial situation gets a priority status a few weeks before the holy day….pfft….why was my parade rained on????? Why am I so hurt by a word????? I now only say a polite hello to the person and keep moving instead of pausing for lengthy, more meaningful communication

    • Kahysii, your example is a perfect expression of how easily we can get "lost in translation" when it comes to the written word. One key thing to realise here is that everyone has different things that are important to them, and it's possible that your friend actually feels really negative about Christmas for some reason. I know I personally struggle with that time of year from having a really big family fight that still hasn't healed despite my best efforts, so when I see stuff about Christmas, my first REACTION is to cringe. And if I was to ACT from this emotionally charged place, then you might see dialogue back and forth like you experienced. How your friend reacts is outside your control, what you can do is choose to Let Go of what she or anyone else writes and move on. I feel that you may be "so hurt by a word" because what's important to you has been dissed, and in doing so you subconsciously may feel like this person is saying that your opinion doesn't matter. This is my outside observation, and may not be true, however I see it everyday in my clients so it's quite possibly happening in your case too. As a society we are so attached to what other people think, we forget to laugh and say "what do I think?", because ultimately your opinion is more important than anyone else's when it comes to your life.C

  6. Nicole says:

    I agree that we are not responsible for others' responses and that we can't "make"anyone feel anything without their permission. HOWEVER, that DOES NOT MEAN that we can go around saying or doing things that could be widely accepted as hurtful, without taking any responsibility for it. I really dislike it when people use "You are responsible for your own feelings" as an excuse to say and do anything they want, everyone else be damned. NOT saying this is what's happening in this case, but I do feel that this article is perpetuating that idea.

    • What's even worse are the "selective provocateurs" … they could treat certain people with respect, decency and pussyfoot around them. With others, who to them are fair game, they could blithely say and do anything they want (sort of a corollary to the "kiss up, kick down theory" in organizational behavior) … it happens!

      So, it's not "EVERYBODY else". They choose actual TARGETS … like the bullies they are capable of being …

      If you can choose not to deal with people who push your buttons, because they choose not to gain anything by controlling their utterances, that will be not only their loss, but the loss of others closely associated with them … it starts to spread unless they can run to new horizons …

    • Hi Nicole, thank you for raising this point. And it begs an article all of it's own – the importance of choosing the place we speak from. If we are consciously choosing to express ourselves from a place of truth and love, then I feel there is no issue. Some will not like what we speak and I would suggest that means they are not meant to be in our life. I don't encourage or condone speaking from a place of spreading ill will, deliberately seeking to cause pain, speaking to offend for the sake of entertainment or any other kind of communication based in fear or seeking power. That is not what I want to encourage or for readers of this article in take away as my message, so thank you again for bringing it up.

      • amphibi1yoghini, I feel everyone is capable of being a bully. It is easy for us to show up as different versions of ourselves with different people, to be more kind to people who we feel are similar to us, and less kind or even unconsciously cruel or dismissive with those who believe very differently to what we hold true. Not everyone who pushes your buttons is someone who wishes to cause you harm. In fact, I push my clients and my students every day, and yet I do so from a place of love, as this helps them grow and become better, happier, healthier versions of themselves. Like anything, it depends on the place we are coming from when we communicate. Do you wish the person harm or health?

    • Mia says:

      I agree. Insensitivve and overly arrogant people love this pharse because they can excuse their hurtful words and actions. They use this phrase so they don't have to accept responsibility for what they say and do. Yes, I have been hurt by folks like this and yes, I have also decided to be honest with my friend after I checked myself for being too sensitive and tired,etc.

  7. thesourceress7 says:

    Our Freudian conditioning surely gets to be a burden. While useful to many, this is energetically and outdated paradigm. Being with what is and staying out of analysis is always best, since the very act of analyzing keeps us in the very thing, the very subconscious running programs that we are trying to analyze ourselves out of. Anyway, they are always in the past. Letting go, compassionate detachment and being present in the moment is the best, although, for some, the hardest, thing to do. Emotional reactions are born of our subconscious programming and are only gotten rid of by being fully conscious in the present moment. Stating your truth is always the best. The reaction to it is the responsibility of the other party, no matter how "bad" or "awful" that truth may appear to be.

    • thesourceress7, I concur and thank you for your thoughtful analysis :-P In the months since writing this article and finally getting it online just a few days ago, I too have grown into an even more present space of observing and accepting what is. I look forward to your comments on some of my more recent pieces as they are posted on this website and my own online space.

  8. jennifer says:

    You sound very hurt and embarrassed by your friends’ responses.

    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for your observation. I guess if I was embarrassed by my friends' responses then I wouldn't choose to put this story on an online space with 40,000 views. I had written it in the hope that my observation of this experience might help others and am grateful it has created such great conversations. I'm certainly not hurt and both people continue to be close friends of mine, with communication having improved further with the friend who was willing to discuss their reaction and less so with the friend who was not as he has shied away from difficult conversations, and though I don't love him any less for it, it just means that a deep and meaningful friendship has become harder to sustain. In the months since writing this article, I have become better and better at being present with what is and letting go of whatever pain I may be feeling, as I know this is where my responsibility lies. Which is, I guess the heart of what this article is truly about.

  9. reneesymons says:

    Good article. I have two views on this though. One is that I agree that it is our choice to react in the way that we do and we need to listen and behave mindfully of others. However, I also believe that it is our choice to have the opinions that we do and to express them whichever way we like, but we do so by accepting that anything that comes out of our mouths or hands has consequences and that those words may reach those who are not as enlightened or as mindful as we. If we were truly mindful, we would be selective about who we share such views with so as not to bring unease to those who are not in the same headspace. Mindfulness is a choice that not everyone is 'down' with, that is not necessarily their fault and we shouldn't treat them as such.

    • Hey Renee, thank you for your views on this article. I appreciate the thought that went into crafting your ideas and opinion, and it's given me reason to reflect in a whole new way – "Do I choose how I speak to whom and about what?". I realise that I do, consciously. "Could I do it better?". Absolutely. What I didn't express in this article is that both these friends are highly mindful, exceptionally spiritually connected people and thus this was the reason I was SO surprised by their reactions and what fuelled me to go looking for what was "happening underneath", and inspired this article in the first place. Thank you again for your insights, as it will prompt me to step up and be even more mindful in my future communication. Love C.

  10. Bryan says:

    While I agree that each person is responsible for how he or she responds to someone else’s words, no matter how hurtful those words may be, the fact is that our words can hurt. I would encourage you to examine the dismissive (some might say arrogant or presumptuous) manner in which this article may come across, in which you pose the initial premise as your friends’ “behaving in a reactionary way” in response to your “well thought out, gentle but honest” words. Your description of your initial gut reaction to Jesse sharing how your words made her feel seems to have been about what was irrational in her reaction, rather than an examination of what you might have said or done to make her feel that way. While you give a brief, obligatory nod to the notion that you are responsible for the words that you speak or type, you immediately move on to discuss what you seem to perceive as the real problem – everybody else and the manner in which they react to you. Given the fact that we do only control our own contribution to any interaction (as you correctly point out regarding your friends’ ownership of their reactions to you), perhaps a more productive response would be for you to examine what you may be doing to cause your communications with others to come across in ways you don’t intend, rather than of starting with the presumption that your communications are fine, and analyzing what is wrong in their life balance to make them unable to see that. Maybe they are working too much, maybe they are overanalyzing, but rarely can misunderstandings be attributed solely to one side.

    You are fortunate that your friends were up front enough to share with you that your words hurt or offended them. Sadly, most people don’t do that, but simply let it be a silent, unresolved wedge in the friendship. Embrace that opportunity to figure out what you might do differently to avoid that in the future, rather than telling everyone how they need to learn to react/respond to you differently.

    • Bryan, thank you for your insights and I can see this theme has come through several times in the comments. I'm grateful to realise how much I have grown since writing this article several months ago. I almost didn't ask for it to be published in this space for that exact reason, because when I found it unpublished elsewhere and re-read it through older, wiser eyes, I saw this same "junk" jump out of the page at me. I love that I decided to go ahead and get it published without changing it, as it was a challenge for me to put this old "junk" on display for public criticism, and because it has evoked since awesome comments and conversations that further reinforce a message I know each of us could learn more deeply. I absolutely agree that at times I can be arrogant and dismissive, and thanks for pointing that out as it helps me to own that part of my shadow to an even greater degree. Of course, having not shared my text messages or the individual spoken words, each of you guys can only guess as to whether in fact they were "kind and well thought out" or whether I am just saying that. That's cool. I appreciate you have to take my word for it, and this of course stirs the pot even deeper. I can also see that it's time for an article about the flip side, which I feel is SO important, about choosing to express our truth from a place of love. So thank you again Bryan for the challenge to step up and grow, to look in the mirror and see how I can do each of these pieces better. With love, C.

  11. JohnH says:

    Noticing the flack you have taken on this article, I want to let you know I admire your guts and wisdom. Yes, we shouldn't be intentionally hurtful to others, but neither should we diminish ourselves just to "protect" them from their feelings. I like your #1 suggestion of getting grounded. If we can go deep within ourselves, then we can speak honestly from our hearts and experiences. As the saying goes, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." Our first priority of relationship is with ourselves. The depth and care of that relationship will naturally extend to others in our sphere of influence. This is why your advice to get "grounded" is so important and necessary. Otherwise we will only be fooling ourselves and others will find us insincere. I would also add that it is important to listen and question before speaking. What is the other person trying to say? Why did my words elicit that reaction in them? Is there a deeper story or ulterior motive that is not being directly expressed? We can show our love and care by simply witnessing and seeking deeper truths. Someone said; "All feelings lead to love." This may be true, but usually we don't have the patience to dig that deep either within ourselves or in others. Like you advise, if we get grounded and take some breaths, maybe we at least can come closer. Yours is good practical advice on a skill all of us could use coaching and practice with.

  12. Hi JohnH,
    Thank you for your kind words and support. I did receive flack from this article and though I was a little surprised, I was also grateful for the insights and opinions that other readers had contrary to my own. I learnt much in the process, including how I REACT to what others say/write to me :) Glad that there was some wisdom in there for you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. And LOVE the quote "well-behaved women seldom make history". It's going on my Facebook Wall to share with my crew :) I'd love to connect over there and find out more about you. Find me at facebook.com/carolinesouthwelldotcom (page) or http://www.facebook.com/carolinesouthwellfb (personal) and just tell me we chatted here. And if not, be well friend!! With love, Caroline.

  13. Cheryl H says:

    Your article was so well written and really spoke out to me. I have been really struggling lately, over the past few months with some of the feedback I have given to a couple of really close friends of mine. I tried to engage dialogue with them with what I was trying to explain. There were things going on in both relationships that I wanted to address and I had reflected on both my parts in them. One friend shut down like Kevin and did not want to engage and our friendship has suffered as she has pulled away. Nothing I can do but it does hurt.

    The other friendship, I spoke my piece and wanted us to go into a dialogue but she would not engage, she wanted to just skim over it and move on but it has caused me to pull away and eventually I did because I just could not move forward without doing what you did with Jesse.

    I am glad I found this article and I am so grateful for seeing in words how I have been feeling. I know it will take time for me to heal and to move on. Thank you.

  14. CherylH says:

    Your article was so well written and really spoke out to me. I have been really struggling lately, over the past few months with some of the feedback I have given to a couple of really close friends of mine. I tried to engage dialogue with them with what I was trying to explain. There were things going on in both relationships that I wanted to address and I had reflected on both my parts in them. One friend shut down like Kevin and did not want to engage and our friendship has suffered as she has pulled away. Nothing I can do but it does hurt.

    The other friendship, I spoke my piece and wanted us to go into a dialogue but she would not engage, she wanted to just skim over it and move on but it has caused me to pull away and eventually I did because I just could not move forward without doing what you did with Jesse.

    I am glad I found this article and I am so grateful for seeing in words how I have been feeling. I know it will take time for me to heal and to move on. Thank you.

  15. Kelli says:

    great article! Are you a Scorpio by chance?

  16. Miranda says:

    I thought it was a great article also. Maybe some of you guys could offer me a suggestion or two on this subject. Background: im a Cancer, highly sensitive, highly over analytical, basket case. :) Im 33 and have been single for the most part of my life. Imagine that! Lol Well, now I am finally in a relationship. I have no clue how to deal with my own emotions, much less how to react when I feel hurt, jilted, angry etc. I guess my question is, how do you know what “battles” to let go of and which ones you should address, when to “draw a line”? Sometimes, I feel like my SO is hurting my feelings/not being as thoughtful as I’d like, etc. I do not want to be a nag or complain all the time. I went through this today. So much that several times, I convinced myself to end it. I did not respond,

    react or address any of it, and we went on to have the BEST time together. I LOVE what we have, and do not want to lose him, but at times I feel like I’d be better off alone again. Sorry for the rambling.

  17. Andrea says:

    I lost interest the second I realized that you don’t know how to spell…. It’s overanalyzing…. yes, it contains a ‘z’, not an ‘s’… an it IS one word, though hyphenating it is an acceptable alternative.

  18. G says:

    Caroline, thank you for your article, but I won’t be reading anything you write in the future. Perhaps a little self-reflection, which is perhaps what your friends were hoping from you, would do you some good.

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