When you react to someone, there’s a tantrum quality to it; you’ve probably held it in for a while not quite knowing how to deal with it, e.g., you ‘don’t want to hurt the other’s feelings (i.e., you don’t want them to get angry with you), you’re thinking you may be behaving over-sensitively, you believe you should be able to get over it, etc.). And so, because it has festered over time, the reaction is big, angry and, at the very least, out of sync with what the other person’s original behavior would have warranted.
Conversely, when you respond, you’re usually doing it closer to the moment something comes up (and thus not harboring it), you haven’t built up all sorts of arguments as to how poorly the person treated you, and you therefore get to talk about it without being overly upset, angry or punitive. And, consequently, it tends to be said a lot more clearly and cleanly and in a way the other person is more able to truly hear – and utilize.
YOU’RE RESPONDING IF:
Your wife is berating you because you weren’t scintillating enough with the guests, and you tell her that you’re happy to discuss why you participated less (vs. denigrating her for having vacuous friends)
You’re hurrying to the office but there are tourists in front of you walking four abreast. You kindly ask them to let you by rather than muttering epithets as you walk past them.
Your assistant speaks to you rudely when you don’t know how to solve a technical problem; and instead of blowing up at her – or, conversely, holding it in and resenting her (because you’ve avoided dealing with it every time she’s done it), you tell her that if she dislikes your slowness with the computer, she has two choices: she can keep those feelings to herself or she can offer to show you ways to solve the tech problems.
The new woman you’re dating is staying online on the dating sites and it concerns you that she can’t be monogamous. Rather than 1) making her feel guilty for what you assume is her needing to date more, 2) invading her space with demands to talk or see each other more often or 3) you simply shut down and pull away, you do the following: You either ask her to help you understand why she’s still online and/or you explain that it’s making you a bit uncomfortable dating her while she still may want to be meeting others – and you let her know that you’re really open to hearing what it’s about. If she’s open to discussing it you may come to understand a good deal more about her and actually get closer in the process (I frequently hear people say that they remain online not because they’re not head over heels for this new person but actually because of it, i.e., they’re afraid to fully believe the person will stay with them). But if the woman insists on remaining online without a clear explanation, you tell her that if she changes her mind at some point you’d be happy to have her look you up – but that, for now, you’ll go your own way.
YOU’RE REACTING IF:
You’re furious (and hurt) that your wife seems to be avoiding sex with you; so you act as if everything is fine but you unwittingly start sniping at her in small (and large) ways. Further, you start flirting with others at work who you know look up to you, getting your ‘positive psychic feedback’, but never addressing with your wife what’s making her pull away.
Your boss told you a piece of your work required editing or altering; you personalize it as somehow reflecting your adequacy, and as a result, you behave sullenly around the boss and avoid dealing with him/her.
You’re the boss from above and your employee is being sullen; instead of telling your employee that his sullenness is getting in the way of quickly addressing the issue and moving on – and offering to clarify more as to why the work hadn’t been up to par – you avoid him as well, and you give the work to someone else – further exacerbating the issue and making a showdown (or shut-down) ultimately more likely.
You’re worried that your partner is seeing someone else because he’s been less responsive to you lately. And instead of trying to learn what’s making him pull back and expressing that you’d like to understand whether you’ve triggered anything that would make him upset, you go out and hook up with your ex.
You believe that every time your wife disagrees with you it must mean that she disrespects you. So when she tells you she won’t go along with grounding your daughter for not having studied enough for a test, you begin to put her down and make her feel that she’s a bad mother. This as opposed to telling her that you realize you may have been somewhat harsh in how you approached your child and that you’ll talk with her about it – but that you’d like to brainstorm with your wife about ways to motivate your daughter to begin studying more.
Responsiveness leads to deep understanding, closeness and/or expanded ways of relating (which, for couples happens to bring sex and everything else to greater levels of excitement in the long run), while reactivity interferes with true understanding and thus – in feedback-loop style – leads to the continued need to pick fights in order to feel connected only in the moment. The former is far more robust and enduring.