Let’s start out with a quiz:
1. Somebody cuts you off on the freeway, causing you to slam on your brakes and spill your coffee. Do you: (a) honk your horn; or (b) feel around for some napkins?
2. You’ve been on hold with your cable company for 20 minutes. Finally a human voice greets you and then the call abruptly ends. Do you (a) swear, throw the phone, and fume; or (b) immediately call back?
3. You picked up your favorite sweater at the dry cleaners, took it home, and later discovered a large discoloration on the sleeve. When you took it back, the cleaners had no record of ever handling the garment, and refused to compensate you. Do you: (a) raise your voice, insisting that it was their fault; or (b) quietly ask to speak to the manager?
It should be obvious that if you chose (a) as your answer to any or all of these questions, you were reacting. And if you chose (b) you were responding.
Reacting is instinctive. (That’s why they sometimes call it a “knee-jerk” reaction.) It’s also habitual. We open our mouths and blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. On the other hand, responding takes thought.
Which leads me to my first suggestion about how to tame your instinct to react. Count to five and think. You can count as quickly or as slowly as you like, but please use that time to choose your words.
Which leads me to my second suggestion, consider your choices. Before you say yes or no, before you slam the phone down or yell, evaluate your options and think about what happens once you respond.
Which leads me to my third suggestion, take a look at potential consequences. I know we don’t have a crystal ball at our disposal, yet we can run through a couple of “what ifs” in our minds.
I suspect that right now you’re thinking, “Who has the time to take these steps?” Well, please understand that this adjustment won’t happen overnight. And completely disregard all of these suggestions if you’re faced with a life-or-death emergency. In all other situations, slowing down to respond rather than react doesn’t mean you’re going to take forever (although counting to five might seem like it). Instead, you’re preparing to give a thoughtful response.
Slowing down the conversation has benefits beyond the react versus respond issue. It comes with a warning, however, that the other party might not understand why you’re silently counting to five, so you probably should communicate that. “Give me a moment” is a sufficient and efficient way to convey your need to respond rather than react. The not-so-hidden benefit is that while you’re thinking, you are showing others that they can have thinking time as well.
Once you begin to model better behavior, you are setting an example and encouraging others to do the same.
If this makes any sense to you, please count to five and then comment with your response.