4 Keys to Responding Instead of Reacting.

Via Caroline Southwell
on Jul 17, 2014
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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.


Bonus: how to bring mindfulness to life and relationships:


Author: Caroline Southwell

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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. Check out Caroline’s website or catch up with her on facebook.


120 Responses to “4 Keys to Responding Instead of Reacting.”

  1. BlondeMamma_82 says:

    Sorry, but your article just comes off as totally arrogant and pretentious! It seems to me that you need to do a fair bit of "self-reflection," and strengthen your own EQ, before you go trying to give others advice on a topic that you clearly don't put into practise for yourself, nor even completely understand!!

  2. carolinesouthwell says:

    Agreed. We, myself included, can spend too much time thinking and over analysing. Totally hope this point came across to those ready to hear it 🙂 Thanks for your support @os1234.

  3. carolinesouthwell says:

    Hi Shelley, acting like a jerk is subject of course to who is observing the behaviour. The challenge with writing a piece like this is that not a single person who has commented here had the opportunity to be there on either occasion so will never be in a position to accurately judge whether my behaviour (or that of my friends') was inappropriate, inconsiderate, hurtful, unkind or anything else I've been called in the last 50 comments. Of course it would make for an interesting article of course if others could have been present and given their two sense from a place of seeing this for yourself. However you get it through the lens of the woman I was over a year ago when I experienced this and wrote this. So I guess there is nothing left for you to take what you wish from this article. If you want to judge and berate me, that is of course, your choice.

  4. carolinesouthwell says:

    Thanks Jay. Appreciate the challenge and your thoughts have been reflected similarly in comments above over the last year. It's so interesting to look back to who I was a year ago and realise both how differently I do relationships, conversations and what learnings I pull from them today as opposed to a year ago. Whilst parts of what you've had to say I now agree with, I still feel many of the lessons hold true. It's easy to scape goat me as a writer of course and online forums such as this allow you to share your opinion (as they should, fair is fair), but even with more than a year of intense personal growth into a woman now who would write about these lessons in a completely different way now, I love reading your criticism as it helps me see that I absolutely still believe 100% that we are ONLY responsible for our own feelings and reactions. Thanks for your reflections. Whilst I learnt a lot in these exchanges with those friends way back then, I learnt more in finding a way to write about them and even more in reading through and considering how I wanted to reply to each comment. So in a backward kinda way, thanks.

  5. carolinesouthwell says:

    Appreciate your reply Marie. Thank you. Whilst it challenges me, I appreciate the time and gentle space this reply came from. How I wish I had these insights more than a year ago. But then, maybe I did, and wasn't ready to hear them. So much wisdom in this comment. May anyone reading this article take time to read this comment, twice.

  6. carolinesouthwell says:

    Thanks BlondeMamma82. The woman I was more than a year ago when I wrote this has had lots of time to reflect and grow, or rather continue to grow as it's been a journey and that journey never ends. Of course, I do continue to teach about EQ as I strengthen my own awareness and understanding. And the place I write from reflects that of course. And it's nice to have people triggered enough by this article again and again, so I have reason to keep revisiting and to see how far I've come since then. All the best.

  7. Judy Christenson says:

    Loved the article and the comments! Have not read them all yet but getting a sense of different people’s perspectives on what you said. And I appreciate the fact that you share that your own thoughts have changed over time. I think your last point about sums it up for me…everyone is different. I will share your article on Facebook but also, with your permission, I would like to copy just the last paragraph and post it on my timeline on Facebook ….as I think it is so important that we all recognize and appreciate our differences while not letting those differences close us off from listening and communicating thoughtfully.

  8. jose says:

    Good for you growing!

  9. Michael says:

    Your tips for responding are good, but your story of your reactions to your friends seems like you are not taking responsibility for how you communicate. Be careful not to use your self calming strategies as a way to prepare and position yourself to defend by deflecting responsibility. If you are communicating in a way that your friends are hurt, and they have the courage to try to tell you, I encourage you to listen and reconsider how you may be being abrupt or insensitive when you are communicating with others. It might be better to get grounded and compassionate, before you communicate, and communicate in a way that respects people's boundaries and sensitivities, while still getting your point across in a way that can help them grow.

  10. Laura Welsh says:

    For me, the most important aspect of this article is a willingness to continue the conversation and a willingness to self reflect. We are never going to hear things, at all times, with an open heart. We are never going to respond, at all times, with a wise mind. Maintaining willingness to dialogue is the key to growth and understanding. If we have to "shut down" or "with draw" in order to "feel comfortable" in any given moment, that can be a fine solution in the moment… and returning to the conversation seems kind of essential for growth. I take one issue with this article and that is in regards to the idea that people "over" analyze. Sure one can attempt to analyze something and be going in circles… but true inquiry and analyzation is an important, I would even say crucial. Going in circles is not necessarily helpful… I have to say… I don't think enough people analyze their actions… and I think that if we , as a culture were better taught to critically analyze… or this wouldn't be thought of as an "over" done action. I think that because we aren't taught to critically analyze our actions, or others actions…has left us in a place of extreme troubles in this "modern world".

  11. Ty says:

    Totally agree. Intent vs. Impact. Just because you crafted what you thought was a well intentioned piece of feedback doesn’t necessarily mean it landed that way. Perhaps they were having a strong reaction but it’s also your responsibility to hear that and adjust accordingly.

  12. Caroline says:

    Thanks Judy. Yes, go for you. Share away 🙂

  13. Caroline says:

    Thanks Michael, as you might appreciate the woman shows up differently than the version of me over 18 months ago when I originally wrote this. Your advice is sage for anyone who is where I was when I wrote this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  14. Caroline says:

    Thanks Laura. I appreciate your viewpoint. I have come to realise in the time since writing this article that in fact one of my greatest strengths is in critically analysing. So it's interesting that the woman I was when I wrote this was being critical of her friends FOR analysing, actually got most of the lessons she wrote about here from doing some of her own critical analysis 🙂

  15. Terry says:

    Interesting reading this now. I just recently dealt with an employee / patient exchange that resulted in the patient filing a complaint against the employee. I had to investigate the complaint and determine responsibility. The nurse was taking the vitals of a female patient who had her 9 year old son with her (African American). The nurse was talking to the boy and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and she said, "how about being a garbage man? They make lots of money." The little boy said he wanted to be a teacher. The mother was very upset and filed a complaint with her case manager and with the hospital. We had to meet with the nurse (with the case manager there who was advocating for the patient) to discuss the complaint and so that I could determine an outcome. The nurse insisted she was not racist, that garbage men make good money, and assertively defended the "intent" of what she said to the boy. She did not understand or accept responsibility for how the comment was received by the patient. The case manager who is also African American explained to her that telling an African American little boy that he should be a garbage man is offensive. She very patiently explained to her from the point of view as an African American, how the statement she made would be received by someone in the AA community.

    I learned a lot from this experience as the person who had to investigate and make a decision about the incident. And I did determine that the nurse was responsible for what she said. It was reasonable to assume that her comment would received in a negative light. Telling any child regardless of their race that they should be a garbage man is offensive. The nurse was responsible.

    On a personal note, I have become more mindful about how I communicate with others and like you, have been told by people that sometimes my "honesty" can be brutal. They did not disagree with what I had said to them but in the way that the message was delivered. I have since made a concerted effort to be more mindful about how I communicate because I absolutely do not want my words to be hurtful to anyone. My ego's need to be right or superior can not be more important than the relationships I so value – not if I want to keep them. I knew that I could do better but in order to do that, I had to take responsibility for what I say and how I say it. People feel much safer with me now and that means more to me than being right or justified. I feel better about myself too because I don't have defend myself for what I say today. When I can communicate honestly with others but in a loving way, the results are always to the good.

  16. Cindi says:

    Your story is but one side. When do the other parties get to share? I'm sure there is much more than your comments highlight.

  17. Poppy says:

    Thanks for the interecting article. I can see and appreciate your path. Something to consider, perhaps you did behave in a way that your friends felt compelled to bring up to you. What I saw was that you did not share with us what you said to them to prompt their responses. … and you judged the friend that took 3 months to speak with you, and had praises for the friend that responded in a way you felt acceptable. You may want to take a look at your own expectations on others, who are we to judge a reaction, a timeframe? 🙂 if you let those go, where dies the story land, what do future interactions look like? Just 2 cents from an old lady who let go, long ago. Be well.

  18. Philippa says:

    INteresting article, though it did come across as being somewhat of a vent for your own disgruntled feelings towards these people for calling you out on things you said. Best to be direct to the person and not tell the whole world about it…even if you are just trying to use an example to get your point across. It comes off as a bit passive aggressive, and making them wrong or bad for expressing their dislike, whatever the timeframe. Perhaps they were not able to feel into how your words made them feel at the time and life got in the way after that, and it was the first chance they’d had to mention it? Perhaps they are introverted and take a much longer time to process feelings and work out how to respond? Maybe they didn’t have the confidence at the time to speak up? Not everyone does.

  19. Brian says:

    It seems that you are making excuses for your own behavior and dismissing the feelings of those closest to you in your article. The things you say and do have great influence on those closest to you. These people should be able to respond more harshly to your actions based upon the trust you have developed between each other. You say that you are responsible for your actions, but are contradicting yourself, and potentially manipulating the responses of others to suit what you want. You are creating guidelines to how people should act and respond to you. This essentially means you can say anything you want without repercussions, which defeats truthful and emotional conversation in relationships.

  20. Aneres says:

    It seems that you’re questioning whether it was ok for these friends to be offended or hurt. You said, “Jesse explained which words had ‘hurt’ her” why was hurt in quotations.. are you questioning whether she was really hurt? I understand the message of your article.. that often the things that trigger us in other people are really about our own stuff, but this doesn’t change the fact that they were actually hurt and it’s not wrong for a friend to communicate this, often it’s productive. You say how can jesse, this aware person act in a ‘reactionary’ way.. and how will she cope with this in the future.. It’s not reactionary in itself to confront someone or tell someome youre hurt, that is a sign of awareness and courage. Often spirituality brags about self sufficiency and dealing with everything internally but that can be taken to an extreme. You can acknowledge that you hurt them even if it wasn’t your intention. Secondly, you seem to assume that these people’s reactions were exclusively about their problems and had nothing to do with you. Any conflict is a reflection of both people it is never one sided. You might ask yourself why you’re attracting situations in your life where you feel attacked/ misunderstood by other people and what kind of energy you’re offering that they feel that way about you