What’s the difference between a reaction and a response? The words are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are times when we use one, but not the other. We speak of having a reaction and making a response. For some reason, “having” seems more involuntary than “making.”
The word reaction has to do with a physical or emotional consequence caused by a stimulus, such as physical conditions (cold, heat, a sharp object, a fall, disease, blunt trauma, etc.) or by spoken words, written words, or actions. A reaction is generally an unconscious or involuntary one.
The word response generally has to do with an action, either a physical action or something that you say. It is generally, but not always, a conscious decision. Sometimes it is based on a person’s emotional reaction. Other times it is based on Soul-searching or an extended thought process. There’s an element of free will and forethought in a response.
Most often, the difference between a reaction and a response is how I feel about something, versus what I’m going to do about it.
Life coach Bob Proctor said, “When you REACT, you are giving away your power. When you RESPOND, you are staying in control of yourself.” How does this work? If a reaction is a consequence of some kind of stimulus, then the stimulus is the cause and our reaction is the effect. The power resides in the cause (the stimulus), rather than in the effect, because the stimulus initiates the situation, and often, the stimulus is what can be controlled. When you choose to take (or not take) action, you are making a considered response, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction. You can choose to act in ways that are appropriate; you can choose actions that you will not regret later. You can choose a response that will teach a lesson or draw attention to an inequity of some kind. As long as you are choosing what you will do, you are retaining your power and staying in control, because your response is voluntary. Responses are not always positive, especially when they are based on the initial reactions of strong, negative emotions.
When planes smashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11, the reaction was almost universally shock and horror. People’s response varied, however. Some people immediately began to shun or speak ill of Middle Easterners, particularly Muslims. Airlines began to watch people of Middle Eastern heritage more closely, and put some of them on “no fly” lists, or force them off airplanes, sometimes at the insistence of other passengers. Other people began to do some thinking and Soul-searching, realizing that the actions of the United States have not always been well taken by those in the Middle East, sometimes justifiably so. Many of these people also realized that in the United States, where the population is predominantly Christian, people who consider themselves adherents of other religions are not truly free to practice their faith or worship as they please. The people who refrained from rushing to judgment were able to make a more considered response. Many of them wrote about their insights on the Internet and participated in public conversations on the issue. Others spoke out in their local areas against rushing to pass discriminatory laws.
When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the initial reactions varied from strong approval or strong condemnation, to shock, anger, or horror. The responses came later. There were a few riots, but more often, and to their credit, people simply demonstrated peacefully. Others blogged or chatted online or participated in discussions in the media. The responses are ongoing, and may eventually include a movement to repeal Stand Your Ground laws in the places where they exist.
Here are a couple of examples at the level of the individual. Let’s say you get a notice from your boss that the company is downsizing, and that you will no longer be employed as of next week. Your reaction, if the move is unexpected, will be surprise or shock, then most likely anger and fear for the future. Your response to the situation may determine whether or not you will walk away from the job with a positive recommendation.
There’s a story going around about a little boy who takes a sharp object and makes scratches on his dad’s car. The father is so upset about this that he hits the boy’s hand, hard, with the wrench that he happens to be holding in his hand, causing multiple fractures. The child has to have his fingers amputated. Later, the child asks his father, “Dad, when will my fingers grow back?” The man had no answer for his little boy. Devastated by his own actions, the man left the hospital and went back to his car, where he noticed that the scratches on the car were a message. The child had written, “LOVE YOU DAD.” The next day the man committed suicide.
This man’s anger as a reaction to his child’s actions was over the top, causing him to respond in a way that he later regretted. His response was not necessarily unusual, though. People beat their kids and throw them against the wall every day. Fortunately, the number of people who overreact at this level is in the minority. However, it might be fair to say that most parents have overreacted at some point in the life of at least one of their children. Can you think of a time when your response was directly related to your initial emotional reaction? If you later regretted that response, how could you have made a better response? If you are still actively parenting, how can you avoid making an inappropriate response in the future?
Think about your own life. What was your initial reaction, and your response when your partner asked for a divorce, when your boss fired you, when someone “unfriended” you on Facebook? What was your reaction and your response when your teenager stayed out past his or her curfew, when your spouse wrecked the car, when your neighbor started building an ugly fence, or when you had your wallet stolen? Regardless of what your initial reaction was, it was your response that mattered. Was your response appropriate? Did your response actually solve the problem? Were you proud of the way you responded, or did you regret your words or actions? 🙂