A Mindful Difference: Respond vs React

By March 7, 2013Leadership

respond react

There may be a slight difference between the words react and respond. Yet, in practice, there seems to be a gulf of difference.

React in action.

When people react, it seems to be defensive. We seem to be at a disadvantage. We are uncomfortable with what is being said or done, and we react. In our reactions, our emotions take a central role. The hair on our neck stands on end. We feel our stomach turn. Our face heats up and our defenses are on red alert.

We know reactions when we see it. In fact, some people on the other side will intentionally stoke the fires, especially when they know we will react. They know if they poke we will coil up and be ready to react in a full way.

There is a downside to reacting. We let emotions without reason drive us forward. We lose control. Reacting is sporadic and emotional.

The upside may be passion, but our passion needs to be centered on purpose, not an unexpected, unproductive stimulus.

Respond in action.

On the flip side is respond. There is still an external spur to our response. Responding, though, is more thoughtful. Responses contain reasoning.

The difference may be this: Responding is guided less by emotion and more by logic.

Responding may be passive in nature, as we are going second in a series. However, a response is more active, and it can change the direction of an interaction.

The upside of a solid response is an engaging conversation, all positive and all civil. We learn. We grow. We listen. We respond. We act forthrightly and from within.

The mindfulness difference.

Respond vs. React - A Mindful DifferenceIf mindfulness is being more centered within and aware of others, then this is a practice we need to embrace to prevent reacting and focus on responding.

Mindful outlines several articles to begin these routines. Let’s apply these mindfulness practices to responding. To respond in a more mindful way, these four steps may help:

Step 1: Breathing – Maintaining evenly-paced breathing is essential, an in and out reasonable rhythm. By focusing on our breathing, we will bring our thinking under control. We may eliminate thoughts that gear us up, releasing them with each breath. By focusing on our breathing, we regain our concentration.

Step 2: Awareness of body – With each breath, we become more aware of our body. We bring our heat of the moment under control. We raise our attention on our face heating up, our palms getting sweaty, and our ire being raised. With focus on our breathing, we also bring our body into a steady state as well, calming our systems down.

Step 3: Releasing tension – With each breathe and raised awareness, we bring ourselves into control and release tensions. We let go and become more centered in who we really are and want to be. Releasing tension returns us to our principles and calmer ways of interacting.

Step 4: Raising attentiveness – As we maintain our inner calmness and strength, we listen to what is being said more intently, and we watch the way in which it is being said. We become more aware as we formulate our response. Our raised attentiveness enables us to respond more thoughtfully and, if needed, begin to direct the exchange in a direction of collaboration or more productive areas of discussion.

I am new to mindfulness.

Yes, I am a newbie but, in thinking about reacting versus responding, I see the value. It is easy to be pulled into reacting, and it takes more effort to respond. However, with mindfulness practices, I believe exchanges can be more productive and greater integrity can be maintained.

Being mindful in our responses ensures integrity in our interactions. Absence of mindfulness will raise the likelihood of emotional reactions and unproductive arguments. We need to gain control through attentiveness and awareness, centering ourselves to lead our conversations fruitfully, honestly, and fully.

What are your experiences on maintaining mindfulness in the heat of a conversation?

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 43 Comments

  • […] A Mindful Difference: Respond vs React […]

    • Terre Tulsiak says:

      It’s interesting to see so many asking about how they should respond, when really they mean react. A ‘perfect response’ simply means that you have considered every possible person that does or could push your buttons and how to defuse them. It is simple. By remaining in control of your own emotions, you plan to NOT respond in a negative way. If it helps to pretend that you have access to damaging photos or remembering that the person has advanced disease, or that their mom just died and they are mad at the world, you can modulate your response by not reacting. It isn’t personal unless YOU allow it to be.

  • Hi Jon – powerful article! I completely agree on building mindfulness through yoga! The discipline of practice from a regular yoga practice is a great enabler. I have also found such benefit from martial arts and SCUBA diving. One particular practice I have found useful is to “Don’t be surprised by the expected.” Briefly – when I remind myself to anticipate responses or reactions beyond what I hope for, and even momentarily empathize with the audience, I find I can emotionally prepare for a much greater range of reactions. Not being surprised is beneficial in that 1. not being surprised lends itself to more effective situational response and 2. more effective responses over time lend credibility to the practitioner. As many others said, breathing, attentiveness, and practice make for mindfulness. For those seeking to start small, practicing not “being surprised by the expected” can help (and is much simpler than yoga or meditation).

    • Jon Mertz says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thank you for your feedback and insight! I like your practice of “Don’t be surprised by the expected.” It seems like one that prepares us along with centering us for what may come our way. In some ways, it seems Stoic-like, and it is a very good way to start a mindful practice. Grateful! Jon

    • MWE says:

      I will try to incorporate mindfulness and the breathing exercises, but I have to ask: When someone says something hurtful out of the blue, and you have mere seconds to figure out the best way to respond, those seconds will be gone if all your’e doing is breathing. When someone has just figuratively slapped you in the face, and you just stand there and breathe, by the time you come up with a response, the conversation will have moved on, and you will feel just as hurt.

      That being said, I appreciated the comment where someone said “don’t be surprised by the unexpected.” If the same person in your life continually behaves in a hurtful way, I agree that we should expect those zingers. But how can you really predict someone else’s behavior, especially because their comments usually come out of the blue in what should otherwise be a friendly conversation. I’m thinking I should just have a response prepared that works in any situation so I don’t even have to think about what to say, for example “Excuse me?” or “Wow, did you really just say that?” Simple, to the point, and it’s clear that I am not a fan of whatever the other person just said, but doesn’t instigate too much. Maybe we each have to find our own response, I’m just putting this out here and hope for some feedback.

      • Jon Mertz says:

        Thank you for your perspective on this topic. It is challenging to respond instead of react. What I read into your comments is that saying “Excuse me?” or “Wow, did you just say that?” may be another way to take a breath. It is a mix of a reaction and a breath, meaning that you give yourself, and them, a moment to think when making that statement. Your response does not escalate the situation; it generates a pause to then consider the next step – for you and the other person.

        I don’t think we will get every time “right” in the way we respond. The more time we take in our response will keep us centered in what keeps our character intact and navigate troubling situations more successfully.

        Just some thoughts….

        Thank you!

  • KGBB says:

    How do I even listen or respond the right way if I’m trying to concentrate on my breathing and how my body feels? I can’t do all of those things at once!

    • Jon Mertz says:

      Great question, and it is challenging. Focusing on your breath and listening can go hand-in-hand, but it does take practice. One way to build this capability is through yoga. What I have learned, I may not be successful every time, but I will be successful more times as I continue to focus on responding rather than reacting. Thanks for your question! Jon

  • Rachel says:

    Hey Jon,

    Great post. I am now able to trust that I respond rather than react. My emotions show me when reacting is surfacing and I have many ways of dealing with my feelings now. After many fails I might add. As a young person I was a constant reactor. Defensive, challenging, argumentative. But I did not like how conversations ended. So I did a lot of research on it. And went into practice mode like you would not believe. Sometimes I would walk away from conversations feeling as though i had won the lotto because I managed when I could feel a reaction coming on. Other times I would feel defeated because I did react.

    I have collected a number of tools along the way and it is now safe to say that I manage most of my reactions. Mind you I am human and there is an odd moment, which I am now gentle with myself. Boy did I used to go to town on myself, making me feel bad. I had to work on that too.


    • Jon Mertz says:

      Hi Rachel,

      I catch myself reacting at times as well. The good thing is that I now catch myself! I may not always succeed, but I am getting better at responding. This reminds we are all still a work in progress. We just need to keep learning and growing. Thanks for your comment and insights! Jon

  • […] In our reactions, our emotions take a central role. The hair on our neck stands on end. We feel our stomach turn. Our face heats up and our defenses are on red alert – Jon Mertz […]

  • Joe Smith says:

    I searched for more information about reaction/response after reading Osho’s section on it in “Intimacy.” I never thought of my reactions simply as being projections of the past because I was so blinded by my passion. In a sense, I didn’t want to feel I was suppressing my passion in order to respond in a more logical way. The breathing techniques are a way I’m learning to control and channel that. Thanks for writing on this topic and spreading awareness!

    • Jon M says:

      Joe, Thank you for your comments and also for highlighting Osho’s book. I have not heard of this but it looks like an interesting read. I will need to explore more. Thanks again! Jon

  • Carys Chan says:

    I am very new to mindfulness, and I really like how you draw a fine distinction between reacting and responding. My emotions still take charge when I encounter a stressful situation, but I’m learning how to respond with control. Thanks!

    • Joe Smith says:

      Have you read Osho’s “Intimacy”? I highly recommend it. He has a section dedicated to reaction/response that enlightened me greatly.

  • […] sign that we’re no longer in control of our tasks and our situation. We’ve switched to reacting instead of responding to our environment, thus we’re no longer determining our own […]

  • sudhanshu dubey says:

    the reactive behaviour is similar to that of reactive power in electricity and the active or responsive behaviour similar to active power or positive energy.our behaviour must be guided by reasoning to keep our cool and mental peace in order to make the living environment condusive and better perceived one.this article is really educative and behaviour changing one.

  • Alina Romanova says:


  • Zenfly Media says:

    Really good article. Thanks Buddy.

  • tracy weed says:

    “Responding is guided less by emotion and more by logic.”

    I would thoughtfully replace the description ‘logic’ with concepts of compassion and equanimity. Logic implies a brain centered thought process and I believe mindfulness is a broadening of all perception, including insight that can only come from living in a body.

    • Jon M says:

      Great point, Tracy. A broader perspective would be a more mindful way. Rather than logic, it is an understanding and encompasses the elements you point out. Thank you for adding the conversation! Jon

  • Hey Jon. When I think of “respond” and “react” I think of the late Zig Ziglar, who illustrated it this way. The doctor gives you some medicine. You have a reaction to it (which is negative, by the way – using Zig’s sense of humor) and immediately stop taking it. You then go back to the doctor who prescribes something else. This time, your body responds and begins to improve.

  • Marzi Pecen says:

    It is essential to practice mindfulness regularly so that it becomes second nature when pressed upon to respond from a centered place.

    • Jon M says:

      I agree, Marzi, and I am just beginning to practice. Finding the time to practice regularly seems to deliver the greatest value. Thanks! Jon

  • Great post John. The ‘mindful’ choice between react and respond. If only I could claim to be a master! haha But alas, that’s our challenge. To keep practicing so that our mindfulness grows stronger. I’ve also read and own Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’. It was a nice introduction to it. And every time I read it, I’m still awed by just how simple and profoundly complex it is all at the same time!

    Thanks for sharing such a great contrast between the two choices: to react or respond.

    Continuing to PRACTICE! : )

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks, Samantha, for your insights! I am just about done with Search Inside Yourself. It provides some great mindful practices, too. Much to learn and practice, which is all good! Jon

  • Hiten Vyas says:

    Hi Jon,

    This was a great post because I loved the way you explained the differences between reacting and responding. I think you’re spot on. I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for around 5 years. It really does work in helping me in the real world to stop reacting as much, by allowing the potentially emotionally charged reaction to pass, objectively. Once this passes, I’m in a state where I can respond. Mindfulness takes practice, effort and persistence. However, it is a skill that can serve the person for the rest of his/her life.

    Thank you.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks, Hiten. It is great to hear about your mindful practices have helped you. It is something I am just beginning but want to get deeper into. Like you, I believe it makes a difference, and you have related how it has. Appreciate your added insights! Thanks! Jon

  • Very nice piece on differentiating between reacting and responding, Jon! You’ve started a nice discussion here! I’m not an expert on mindfulness by any means, but one ultimate key to practicing mindfulness, it seems, is for us to become an inner observer of our own thoughts, so that they don’t automatically run our lives. As human beings, our brains are wired to react with thoughts; we can’t change this physiological fact. However, what we *do* with our reactive thoughts makes the difference. Through the practice you outlined above, for instance, we can start becoming aware of when reactive thoughts form and *decide* how we’d like to proceed in spite of them. We then can decide in the heat of the moment what’s at stake, what being right might cost, what the underlying common interest in the disagreement/conflict is (there *always* is one), and how we can more likely steer the conversation toward a more constructive course.

    • Jon M says:

      Nicely said, Alice! I think you are more of an expert on mindfulness than you think! It is about being attentive to our thoughts and releasing them, especially the ones that are really not that important. It is also being attentive to the other’s expressions and words, ensuring we are really absorbing and thinking through a better response. Great thoughts added, Alice, so thank you! Jon

  • Alli Polin says:

    Really fantastic article, Jon! Leadership lives in our responsiveness and mindfulness helps tremendously. When I feel myself going into a reactive mode, I quickly ask “what if I’m wrong?” It at least gives me a moment to pause… and breathe.

  • I have found the Satir Interaction Model invaluable and helping me through these situations. At first, I used it to help me learn from problem interactions after they’d happened, but with practice, I began to use the model to help me steer troubled interactions in a better direction while they happened. It provides me a tool that encourages mindfulness in those situations.


    • Jon M says:

      It looks like a great model, J.B. I can see how this would help develop solid practices for interactions. Great model. I will definitely read more about it, and thank you for adding this into the conversation. Thanks! Jon

  • Marquita Herald says:

    Great article Jon. I’m certainly no expert in this regard, but I learned a long time ago that for me it’s important to literally walk away for a time when I feel myself about to react. I have a flash temper and it used to get me in trouble all the time until I learned to create a buffer zone. Thanks for the added inspiration and tips.

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Marquita. Walking away is definitely a way to get re-grounded and centered. At times, we cannot so breathing may be the next best thing to re-gain our awareness and response. Always appreciate your insight and inspiration in your writing. Thanks! Jon

  • I loved the post, Jon! Our reactions and responses are the choices we make. Instant reactions are sometimes bad and can hurt a lot, either yourself or others. Mindful responses is what we need to learn. A good analysis.

    Great sages have reiterated one thing – at times like in the heat of a conversation or at all other times, do not get involved; take the role of an observer. If you’re not involved, you put your ego in a sleep mode. Your ego is what gets hurt if it is active and involved in such situations. Conscious breathing too helps in being mindful, which again is akin to taking the observers position.

    • Jon M says:

      What wonderful advice, Harleena! The role of observer and keeping your ego in check are both essential. Really great additions to the conversation. Appreciate it! Jon

  • This is great. I am adding this link to my “mad” post. I am always a work in progress on this one. Even when I am not “reacting” on the outside, I sometimes have trouble not “reacting” on the inside… which can also be destructive.

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you! It is easier to react than respond, but the latter reflects better on us and makes more progress forward. Appreciate it! Jon

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