Therapist tips on how to respond can save your relationships
One culprit that creates conflict in relationships is reactivity. Responding can indeed save communication and relationships. It shows that you care about what the other person has to say, and it also demonstrates your ability to listen. However, reaction is a barrier to communication. It can create resistance and distance in relationships. It is often driven by emotions, and a lot of us end up regretting how we react.
Responsiveness is appreciated in all areas of our lives, whether it is social interactions or at the workplace. Learning how to respond can take time, but it is sure to boost your personal growth.
Why is it difficult to respond and easier to react?
Reaction is a lower-order stress-based behavior. Responding is a higher-order behavior that requires deliberation and effort. The latter includes forethought, i.e., a desired outcome.
For example, if we express anger toward someone, they are inclined to move away from us, but sometimes, our anger is actually due to a desire to increase closeness. Responsive behavior would involve having that feeling of anger, reflecting on the unmet need behind it, and articulating that need.
Meanwhile, reaction is primarily an adult behavior; this part of the brain develops in the twenties. If an adolescent is not reactive, they may be in freeze or fawn mode. Our stress responses can be fight, flight, fawn, and freeze.
How do I respond instead of reacting?
It takes practice to be responsive, and skill-building can’t be done in the throes of adversity. There are many ways to develop your ability to respond. When you learn how not to react, you train your brain and create new neural pathways. Activities that support being present include working with your hands, meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, and many more.
Forcing yourself to be responsive can be impossible when you have limited access to the neocortex and prefrontal cortex processes. While our lower-order processes are automatic, our higher-order processes must be consciously developed. People often choose to build on their mindfulness skills to become more responsive.
A few quick tips that can help you respond to people, situations, or things are:
- Pause: Take a quick breather when you know that you are about to react.
- Make room for emotions: Try to give meaning to what you are feeling. Try to make space before responding.
- Distract: Take your attention away from reaction and think about how a friend would talk to you about it in the situation.
- Be intentional and mindful: Think about the consequences of your reaction.
- Deep breathing: Cultivate soothing your nervous system. Your emotions don't have to rule you.
The capacity to pause is so empowering. We don’t develop this simply by knowing the possibility; we must do it through consistent practice.
Whenever you try to be responsive, you make a choice to do better for your relationships. You give yourself time to better understand the situation, and you strive to become a better version of yourself.
Janvi Kapur is a counselor with a Master's degree in applied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology.
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