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React vs Respond

What's the difference?

photo from pixabay
Source: photo from pixabay

“When I look back on my knee-jerk reactions now, I realize I should have just taken a breath.” —Fred Durst

Let’s talk about reaction versus response. Some people use the words synonymously but to me there’s a world of difference.

A reaction is instant. It’s driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the unconscious mind. When you say or do something “without thinking,” that’s the unconscious mind running the show. A reaction is based in the moment and doesn’t take into consideration long term effects of what you do or say. A reaction is survival-oriented and on some level a defense mechanism. It might turn out okay but often a reaction is something you regret later.

A response on the other hand usually comes more slowly. It’s based on information from both the conscious mind and unconscious mind. A response will be more “ecological,” meaning that it takes into consideration the well-being of not only you but those around you. It weighs the long term effects and stays in line with your core values.

A reaction and a response may look exactly alike. But they feel different.

For example, say you are approached by a panhandler on the street and you give that person money. It’s a reaction if you gave that money out of fear or embarrassment or guilt. It’s a response if you gave that money from a solid sense of “I am here to help my fellow man in whatever form.” Or say you didn’t give that person money. Again, it’s a reaction if you didn’t give the money out of fear, disgust, or anger. It’s a response if you didn’t give the money because you decide it’s wiser to give your money elsewhere.

We all know the difference. The point is that the more reacting we do, the less empowered we are. We’re operating from underlying assumptions and beliefs we’re not even aware of. And the results of doing that are somewhere between horrendous and less than stellar.

In my NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) trainings and my Empower Your Life weekends, we spend a lot of time delving into the unconscious mind, how it operates and how to connect with it consciously. Left to its own devices, the unconscious mind creates a whole library of beliefs, prejudices, biases, fears, and limiting decisions. Its main goal is your survival. So anything that might threaten survival becomes Public Enemy #1 to the unconscious. If your conscious goals are in conflict with your unconscious mind’s sense of survival, the unconscious will derail any efforts you try to make toward those goals.

That said, the unconscious can be an awesome partner to the conscious mind. It can provide the juice and energy to accomplish what you want. And when it’s not freaking out trying to ensure your survival, it has a lot of intuitive wisdom to offer. To get to that point, though, you need to spend some time working with the unconscious, helping it release the limiting beliefs, constrictive assumptions, and negative emotions that no longer serve you. In my trainings and workshops, we focus on how to align the unconscious mind with conscious desires.

Back in 1998, researchers Anthony Greenwald, Debbie McGhee, and Jordan Schwartz introduced something called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT measures the milliseconds that it takes to connect pairs of ideas. The test is based on the concept that you will be faster putting together ideas you already associate with one another. So for example, if you automatically associate female with family and male with career, then you’ll be fast placing nouns that relate to female/family or male/career in the columns. But if the columns are titled male/family and female/career and those are not the associations of your unconscious mind, it will take an extra millisecond or two to sort the nouns properly. (If you want to try one of the tests yourself, go to

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about IAT in his book Blink. He took one on race and was mortified to find out that his unconscious association with Caucasian-European was “good” and his association with African American was “bad”—even though Gladwell himself is half-black. In an interview, he said that experience taught him to disregard his first impressions of people and to take time to know them before passing any judgement.

We all have these associations, many of them unconscious. As I mentioned, you can work with the unconscious to unearth these associations and align them more closely to your values and goals. When you do, you tap all the power the unconscious has to offer. But even before you engage the unconscious as a productive partner, you can start living a life that is more responsive and less reactive simply by paying attention and noticing when what you do or say feels off-center. Pause whenever you feel yourself about to react. Take a deep breath, step back, and give yourself the opportunity to respond.

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” —William James

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