A couple sits down and having a conflict representing reacting versus responding

As a couples counselor, if there was one class I would make mandatory in high schools across the country it would be Reacting vs. Responding 101. 

I meet so many people who love their partners and have the best intentions… but their habit of reacting rather than responding gets in the way of having a healthy relationship with positive, productive communication. They struggle with not leading with anger when they’re feeling upset. They focus on their own story about what’s happening, rather than remaining open to their partner’s point of view. They often wish they could just stop doing this but they genuinely don’t know how. 

If you get a little reactive sometimes, welcome to the Human Being Club. Emotionally-fueled reactions are totally normal, especially in conflict, but it’s also an important area for personal growth. We could all benefit from building self-awareness about our reactions, where they really come from, and most importantly, how we can become responsive rather than reactive in relationships with the people we love. 

This article will help you do that. If you would prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on reacting versus responding. You can find it in the player below, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Why We React vs Respond

We all have a hard-wired impulse to react quickly to anything that feels like a threat. Thinking takes time, and when a bear is charging at you, you don’t have time to ponder how the bear might be feeling or why exactly you feel so afraid. You just leap to your feet and run to safety, thanks to the finely-tuned threat sensors that are baked into the machinery of your brain. 

In the modern world, we are rarely charged by bears. Instead, we mostly react to the “threats” that we detect in our relationships. Things that make you feel hurt, or bad about yourself, or afraid of losing something, or like your needs and desires are being thwarted by the other person. 

Your reactions aren’t just the natural consequences of what’s happening, even though it can feel that way because they happen so fast. They are triggered by your unique inner world, and they are a window into the things that feel threatening or hurtful to you. One person may barely notice if someone cuts them in line at the bank, while another could feel deeply disrespected and then stew in anger for the rest of the day. Reactions are fed by your expectations for relationships, your past, the way you feel about yourself, the meaning you make out of your experiences, your anxieties, and many other factors. Noticing your reactions and getting curious about where they really come from is the first step in learning to respond rather than react.

Grow Together

Schedule a Free Consultation Today.

Why Responding Not Reacting Matters in Relationships

In your relationship, “reacting” might look like shutting down in a conflict with your partner, rather than approaching the conversation with an authentic desire to understand their perspective. It could also look like being quick to defend yourself against anything that feels like criticism, or feeling hurt, angry, or resentful because of unmet expectations. 

Reactions like these are normal and understandable, but unfortunately, they can ruin relationships. If you tend to react with anger, that can damage the emotional safety in your relationship and make your partner feel invalidated. They may start avoiding conflict with you, and leaving resentments to brew. In some relationships, both partners react automatically to each other, creating a reactive cycle that causes minor conflicts to escalate into horrible fights. Eventually, relationships like these often fail if the couple doesn’t get support with changing their reactive dynamic. 

How to Have a Response vs React

As you probably know, the opposite of reacting is responding. But in couples counselor lingo, we like to call it “responsiveness.” 

In a nutshell, being responsive in a relationship means being sensitive, understanding, and supportive of the emotions, desires, and concerns expressed by your partner. It means considering other possible interpretations for what’s going on when you’re feeling upset, and being open to ones that give your partner the benefit of the doubt. 

Here’s an extreme example of what it looks like to react instead of respond: If Mark calls Katie to cancel a date, she could react by screaming “You don’t care about me at all!” and hanging up on him. 

Or, she could respond by expressing how she feels, and getting curious about Mark’s experience. “I’m sad to hear that, I was really looking forward to seeing you tonight. Is everything okay?” she might say. Meanwhile, she could be talking to herself like this: I’m feeling a little hurt, and I’m telling myself a story about how he doesn’t care about me. But that may not be what’s going on here. I’m going to check in with Mark and get more information.

Obviously, the second response is going to do a much better job of nurturing the relationship. It expresses a vulnerable feeling rather than hostility, giving Mark an opportunity to connect with Katie emotionally rather than pushing him away. It acknowledges that Katie doesn’t have all the information about why Mark is canceling their plans, rather than rushing to a negative judgment that he will feel the need to defend himself against. Katie is also expressing an interest in what’s going on in Mark’s life, rather than making the whole situation about herself. 

That last point is key: When you react, you turn the focus to your own experience — how you feel, how you see things, and what you think should be happening or not happening. When you respond, you’re opening the door and allowing your partner space to share their feelings, perspective, needs, and expectations. Responding allows both of you to bring your stuff to the table and sort through it together with empathy and understanding. That is what nurtures relationships and allows them to grow. 

Tools for Responding, Not Reacting

So, what can you actually do with this information? How can you put it into practice in your relationship?

I’m glad you asked! There are a few important tools you need in order to override the impulse to react so you can respond with intention. These are fundamental emotional intelligence skills, and they are at the core of so much personal growth work:

  1. Self-awareness

When we go into reactive mode, we think we’re reacting to what the other person is doing, but we’re really reacting to our own thoughts and feelings about what the other person is doing. Anger especially is a secondary emotion; there are always other feelings underneath it, and you might miss them entirely if you don’t slow down and pay attention to the internal process that transforms hurt or fear into anger. 

It takes a lot of self-awareness to identify the deeper feelings that are fueling your reactions, especially when you’re feeling emotionally flooded. Without self-awareness about where your feelings are coming from, it will feel like the other person is simply making you feel bad — which is 1) untrue, and 2) takes away all of your power. 

  1. Self-regulation

Once you’re more aware of your feelings, it’s easier to regulate them. That might mean taking a few deep breaths, taking a break from the conversation, talking to yourself in a way that is soothing, or trying to shift into a more helpful mindset. All of this is easier said than done when you’re upset. If you struggle to regulate big feelings, working with a good therapist can help you become more empowered to manage your own emotions.

  1. Accurate empathy 

Once your feelings are managed, you can try to understand where the other person is coming from. Maybe the lady who cut you off in traffic is stressed out because she’s running late. Maybe she’s making careless mistakes because she didn’t sleep last night. Other people are just as complex internally as you are, and recognizing that requires empathy. When you let that complexity in, it’s easier to respond rather than react. 

  1. Relationship management 

Finally, being able to respond rather than react requires relationship management skills. Like, being able to validate your partner emotionally, even if you don’t share their feelings or perspective. Or, using empathy to understand where they’re coming from, and to see the noble intentions behind their actions, rather than vilifying them when they do something you don’t like. 

If these “noble intentions” aren’t obvious, or you can’t understand what led them to do or say what they did or said, that’s okay — it just means you need to ask some questions. When you approach your partner with vulnerability, curiosity, and openness, they will have no need to react to you in a negative way. Everyone will feel calmer and then a constructive conversation that brings you closer together can ensue. 

Support for Responsive Relationships

It is one thing to read an article or listen to a podcast about “how to be less reactive” in your relationship, and another thing to put these skills into practice. Especially if you and your partner have a long history of reacting to each other automatically, it can take time, intention, and often, professional support to increase your self-awareness and change these patterns together.

This work is an opportunity for deeply rewarding growth, for you and for your relationship. If you would like support on this journey from a couples therapist on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — For more advice creating healthy, constructive communication in your relationship, see my “communication that connects” collection of articles and podcasts. I made it for you!

Music in this episode is by Cass McCombs with their song “Sleeping Volcanoes.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://cassmccombs.bandcamp.com/album/heartmind.  Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

Reacting vs. Responding: Communication 101

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Hi, this is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. We all know that we get better results when we respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively, especially when it comes to our relationships. But knowing how to do that, especially in the heat of the moment, can be harder than it sounds. So, on today’s show, you’ll be learning how to slow down and respond with intention so that you get better outcomes.

Today’s mood music: this is Cass McCombs singing about “Sleeping Volcanoes,” which I thought was very apt for today’s show. I think we all have this dormant reactivity to all kinds of different things. We all have capacity to respond with style and grace but also either explode or shut down or be reactive, make impulsive decisions.

Even our cognitive styles can be rather reactive. And that is this volcanic uncontrollable thing that happens that can, in retrospect, create issues for us, create outcomes that we would rather not have, especially in relationships. But, you know, reactivity can show up in all kinds of life domains including, your day-to-day happiness and quality of life, and in your career, too.

So this topic of reacting versus responding, understanding the difference between the two, and knowing how to just manage yourself in those moments — particularly when you know that you are vulnerable to being reactive — really puts you in such a position to be successful in life and relationships, at your job.

So that’s why I wanted to talk about this today. And if you want to learn more about Cass McCombs and his work, or even check out upcoming tour dates, looks like the man is on the move. You can check out his Bandcamp page, cassmccombs.bandcamp.com. That’s Cass, and then McCombs with two C’s — cassmccombs.bandcamp.com. Good stuff.

So let’s just dive right in to talk about reactivity, what it is, and how you can manage it intentionally in order to become more responsive, and get yourself some better results out there in the world. As always, I am going to be referencing other podcasts that I’ve recorded in the past and articles that are available for you on my website at growingself.com. To access any of those go to growingself.com/blog-podcast to get yourself on the podcast page.

Then from there, there are actually a variety of different content collections that will be helpful for you because this is really a global topic. If what I’m talking about today, in terms of couples, communication, feels most interesting for you, you’ll want to access the Love collection. And from there, go into healthy communication skills. Emotional intelligence is something that we’ll be talking about a lot as well so that you can create communication that connects.

But if you’re listening to this from a more individual perspective, and the things that I’ll be talking about, about just how to like manage your self more intentionally in vulnerable or triggering moments, I would invite you to go into the Happiness collection of content and check out articles in emotional wellness would definitely be one of them but also healthy relationships. I have a whole collection of content that’s really devoted to talking about personal growth and how we can by focusing on ourselves develop better relationships in all domains of our life. So you might want to check out the healthy relationships collection.

Lastly, I’ll also be talking about how this concept of reactivity can really impact our success-oriented outcomes. So either on the job, certainly, so if you go into the Success collection and check out emotional intelligence at work, emotional wellness at work would also be really appropriate.

But there’s this other important component of reactivity, which is that if we are not self-aware and intentional about how we respond to different things, we can quite unintentionally be creating all kinds of, oftentimes unwanted, outcomes for ourselves that go into that holistic life design component. So, of course, I have a content collection about Holistic Life Design.

But, you know, there’s all kinds of things like, impulsivity can be related to financial outcomes, if your immediate reaction to something like… Okay, just backing up a little bit, we often think of reactivity as being associated with negative emotions. That can certainly be true, like if we have an angry reaction, or a hurt, or frightened reaction to something happening often relationally that can lead to a reactive response of one kind or another.

But it is also very true that reactivity can have a positive component when it’s happening, like for example, it feels positive when it’s happening. For example, if you have a tendency to get excited about things in the moment, like, “Yes, I should buy that,” or “Yeah, let’s meet in Denmark this summer, that sounds really fun,” or “I’m just gonna move,” those kinds of things.

Like, it’s awesome to take chances and grow and do new things and have fresh energy coming into your life. But even though reactivity can feel positive and exciting in the moment, as evidenced by a credit card bill coming in later, there really can be adverse outcomes long term. 

So again, reactivity can can manifest as a lot of different things, and knowing yourself and becoming more aware of how you tend to react in the face of certain circumstances or certain triggers, and developing an intentional gameplan in advance really helps you become just so much more in control of yourself and the outcomes that you’re creating in virtually all aspects of your life. 

So today, we’ll be talking about all of those, beginning with relationships because I think that for many of us, our tendency to react to different things is most easily seen and sometimes corrected in the context of our relationships. And when we learn how to manage ourselves differently in these moments, we can get very different and much more positive and satisfying outcomes when it comes to relationships. So beginning there as a couples counselor.

If this is your first time listening to the show, I should probably introduce myself because I haven’t done this in a while. So Lisa Marie Bobby, obviously, but my background — I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I am also a licensed psychologist, and I am a board certified coach. So I draw from all of these different orientations to talk about love, happiness, and success on the podcast. And also, of course, this is what I do in my counseling and coaching practice, Growing Self.

So as you’re listening today, you’ll hear me draw from all of these different orientations to talk about how reactivity shows up in different aspects of your life and how to manage it. So just in case you were wondering who I was, and why I felt that I had the right to speak with authority on any of these topics, that’s what you need to know about me a bit.

So in my role as a couples counselor, I’m a marriage and family therapist, so I do a lot of work with couples trying to improve their relationships, but also individuals who come see me and are like, “maybe I have patterns,” “maybe I need to work on on myself in order to get better results in my relationships,” which is fantastic.

But from years and years of doing this work, I now have a secret fantasy, that in high schools all over the world, there would be a mandatory communication and relationships class — that is my hope. I don’t think it’ll ever happen, but maybe. But in this class, there would be a whole unit on Reacting versus Responding 101. Because without this ability to manage yourself in these moments, it can really create problems.

I work with so many people who love their partners and their loved ones. They have the best of intentions, but their lack of awareness over their own tendencies to react rather than respond, it really gets in the way of their ability to have a healthy relationship with particularly positive and productive communication.

They frequently experience other people as being hostile, unresponsive, lacking empathy towards them, or closed off, whatever it is. They literally have no idea that their immediate reactions are contributing to the responses that they get from other people, which is incredibly disempowering. Because if it’s always somebody else being mean or being weird, there’s a helpless feeling that comes along with that.

So to do some really deep work around their own tendency to react in certain ways, when they understand that and are able to manage that differently, they have the opportunity, at least, to get very, very different results. It’s like just a light switch flips on, they’re like, “oh,” and they start experiencing relationships and other people very differently because of that personal growth work.

It’s incredibly empowering and important work to do, and wouldn’t it be amazing for young people to be taught this stuff at earlier ages? Because what happens for most of us, virtually all of us, is that we don’t actually have opportunities to do this work until we are partnered or married, and it’s not going well. “Okay, maybe I have some work to do here.” So anyway, oh, preventative relationship skills, if only.

So reactivity in relationships, how it is experienced for all of us, and I think if you reflect on your own inner experience, when you are interacting with people you care about, sometimes you might feel angry, right? If you’re feeling upset, or defensive, you may feel criticized, like “no, that’s not what happened.” Or you may notice yourself withdrawing, shutting down a little bit, in response to other people. So even becoming very quiet and inhibited can be a form of reactivity. 

But what the common element is with all of these is that whatever it is that you are feeling in that moment now has control over you. There is a narrative that is now active in your mind of “I am being wrongly accused,” perhaps, “I am being threatened, I am being criticized in a way that feels hurtful, I am not safe in this moment right now,” whatever it is, but between that narrative and then the emotional reaction that comes with it, now you’re kind of locked into your own reaction. And that happens, right? We all get reactive sometimes. And welcome to being a human, right? These emotionally fueled reactions are completely normal, and particularly intense relational moments.

But again, such an important area for personal growth because when you build self-awareness about “just what happens to me in these moments, why do I react the way that I do? What am I telling myself about what is happening right now?” Then, you begin to develop skills and abilities to get a little bit of psychological distance and start feeling more empowered to be making decisions about “how would I like to handle this moment, rather than being swept away by the emotion that you’re feeling in the moment,” and that is how we can become more responsive, rather than at the mercy of our own inner experience.

There are good reasons why we react versus respond in these, and it really goes back to his as if you’ve listened to this podcast before, you’ve probably heard me talk a lot about the impact of evolutionary biology, on our way of being in the world, but also in our relationships. Like, we have hard wired things structures in our brain that are all about surviving in a hostile world, which we all evolved in.

Part of this is that we have large and powerful parts of our brain that are designed to react very quickly to anything that feels like a threat, and this is a good thing when we think about the ancient world, right? Because thinking like, if this, then that, that is a fairly slow process.

All of us humans have different thinking styles. There is fast thinking, which is this emotional reflexive, that is nonconscious. And then there is a slow thinking process. The slow thinking process where we reason through things and make what feels at least intellectually based decisions about things, comes from a much, much newer part of our brain, our neocortex.

In many ways, this new part of our brain, even though it is fascinating and creative and the architect of amazing things, in many ways, this is a much weaker part of our brain than this old limbic system that reacts immediately to whatever it is experiencing in the world, particularly when it comes to threats.

So if you are actually in a dangerous situation, like a grizzly bear is actually charging at you, you’re going to respond to that immediately and probably very effectively. You don’t think about what’s happening, you’re just on your feet and running. You’re not even sure why, but you’re just going, and that is really a good thing, thanks to these finely tuned threat sensors that are baked into the machinery of your brain.

In the modern world, sometimes certainly, we’re in dangerous, threatening situations, and we can trust our brains to take care of us in those moments. It is also true that most of what we are reacting to, the threats we experience in this world, come from other people and our perceptions of them from our relationships.

So because when you think about things that make you feel hurt or bad about yourself, or maybe even afraid of losing something, or that you’re being obstructed in some way, or that you’re not safe, most of the time, it’s not our physical safety that’s on the line — it’s our emotional safety. These reactions aren’t even just the natural consequences of what is actually happening, although it can feel that way because it happens so fast.

These responses really come from the aggregation of our life experiences that are unique in our world. And they become a window into understanding the things that you perceive as being threatening are hurtful. Going back to your core beliefs, or your old life experiences, oftentimes in your family of origin or with other friends or partners in the past, these life experiences shape the way that we react.

For example, one person might barely notice if somebody cuts them in line at the bank, or their core belief would be “they’re busy, it’s fine, whatever.” A non issue. Whereas another person could feel very disrespected, can’t tolerate this, and could become very emotionally reactive and either say or do something in that moment that, in retrospect, they’re like, why did he do that? Or it kind of jangles them to the degree that they feel angry and upset for the rest of the day, ruminating about what happened, right? 

Reactions are created, they’re fed, really, by your expectations for what should be happening. We all have this subconscious list of rules in our brains, whether or not we’re aware of them, and particularly when it comes to other people.

So the meaning that we’re making out of our life experiences, or the old anxieties, or the core belief systems that we’re carrying with us, these are the things that often are related to our version of reactivity, the things that trigger us. So when you begin this growth work, which involves really just noticing your reactions, it’s incredibly important to simply get curious about them, and this can be done in a lot of different ways.

This is what we talk about in therapy or coaching a lot of the time, like, “Oh, why do I react this way? I don’t know, why does it make sense?” But really having that safe space, like a therapist to say, “yeah, why does that make sense?” And instead of taking a self critical stance around like, “wow, that was messed up. I shouldn’t do that.” Like, no, no, no. Let’s talk about why that does actually surely makes sense in the context of your life and your personality and your core beliefs and your values. Why does it make sense? Through that kind of reflection, the triggers, the core beliefs begin to be known.

Even though insight is not enough to change anything, insight is this crucial first step when it comes to gaining more control over the way that you respond, the way that you would like to respond in the moments. That’s really step one of shifting this in every situation. But it’s particularly important to do this when it comes to your relationships, because in your relationship with your partner… First of all, everybody is typically much more reactive to interactions with our number one person, like your spouse, your boyfriend, or girlfriend, or partner, or whatever it is, than we are with any other humans with the possible exception of our immediate family.

So what we see is that typically, we are much less reactive to relationships that are less important to us,I mean, certainly acquaintances, or even friendships. We tend to be less reactive than we are in our primary relationships, or with our parents or something. There are old triggers there. That’s just one thing to know, and I just wanted to mention it, because I’ve talked to many people who can be confused by that fact.

They think, “I don’t have these kinds of reactions to anybody else in my life, except for my husband. So there must be something particularly wrong with my relationship with my husband because I don’t get angry at my friends like this.” Certainly not saying that there are relational things going on, like yes, if you’re feeling angry at your husband frequently, let’s talk about why that makes sense and see what we can do about it.

But it is also true that in our primary, closest attachment relationships, we will be the most reactive and so, no matter who you’re with, you will be more vulnerable to reactivity because the emotional stakes are higher. So, I just wanted to put that out there in case that had ever crossed your mind, “why am I so much more reactive here?” So that is why, but so in our intimate relationships, as I mentioned, reacting can look like a lot of different things. We can think of reactivity as lashing out or becoming very angry or saying or doing things that are impulsive or hurtful, but emotional reactivity can look like so many things.

It might look like shutting down and refusing to engage in constructive ways or walking out of the room or minimizing. Those can all be types of reactivity that are fueled by automatic emotional responses. Oftentimes, people who seem like they’ve just become rocks, like they’re inert, they’re shutting down, are on the inside becoming emotionally flooded, and are really trying to manage that situation by shutting down. Or are defending yourself, if your reaction is “I am being criticized, this is a threat.”

And now you’re like, “No, that’s not what happened. Let me go into a lot of logical statements about why I’m right and you’re wrong.” We can feel like we’re being reasonable and logical, and we are responding, reacting in a way that is really inappropriate for a relational situation that calls for empathy and understanding and thoughtful communication skills.

When we feel threatened, if we’re going flying into logic, we are still responding in a way that could be damaging to our relationship because of our automatic emotional responses in those moments. The way that these small moments go have so much power in the context of a long term relationship.

So for example, if you’re going into defensiveness or logic because you’re reacting in an emotional level, it is likely that your partner is experiencing you as being emotionally unavailable, invalidating, minimizing, and that will begin to damage the emotional safety and the trust in your relationship. The message is, “I can’t talk to this person about things that are important to me. They’re getting defensive. They’re telling me I’m wrong. Okay, nevermind.” 

If your tendency you react by avoiding conflict, what that creates is a dynamic where you cannot have constructive and authentic conversations about real things that might be real problems in the relationship. And when there is unresolved conflict that people can’t talk through together, that creates deep feelings of resentment.

The trust, again, is fractured, because “I can’t talk to my partner about things that are important. There is something going on in this relationship that I don’t like, I’m unhappy with, I really want this to change. But I can’t even have that conversation with them. They’re avoiding it.” They’re like, “Yep, whatever you want. Yes, I could totally do that differently next time. Sure. What, yep, gotta go.” But then no change happens. That is very damaging when it happens over and over again. 

Of course, certainly, if the reactivity does manifest in hostility, criticism, anger, eye rolling, “what, I can’t even believe you,” certainly going into lashing out, saying mean things, being insulting, that is so toxic to the emotional safety of a relationship, that you become quite threatening, and people start walking on eggshells around you and don’t even tell you how they feel because they are afraid of your reaction to things, which also, if we can’t talk and have constructive communication and courageous conversations, relationships get stuck.

They cannot grow. For all of these reasons, relationships will often fail if, over time, again, and again, and again, there’s this reactivity that inhibits responsiveness. It stops and blocks communication from happening. The takeaway is that there is no hope for this. “I don’t trust this person anymore to meet me in a space where we can talk through things and work on stuff.”

Then the decision becomes, “do I want to keep doing this or not,” because there isn’t a middle path forward. So getting a handle on emotional responsiveness in intimate relationships is crucially important when it comes to having healthy long term relationships. It’s just you have to learn how to do it if you want relationships to persist. 

Of course, nobody teaches us how to do this, right? Again, it is only when we start running into trouble in our relationships, or “maybe I should go to talk to somebody or listen to podcasts like those or read a book.”

Again, that’s normal, because we didn’t get that class in high school, right? It’s only in response to issues that we are challenged to do this growth work. That is a very positive thing. But then when you begin thinking about okay, what do I want to do differently here? The answer lies in learning how to become appropriately responsive.

Let’s talk about responsiveness for a second. In a nutshell, being responsive in a relationship means the ability to notice and manage your own reactions effectively enough, so that you’re able to understand what is really happening in another person and respond to that in a way that builds the relationship rather than works to destroy that relationship.

Death by a thousand cuts, how we respond in each of those moments — that is the fabric of a relationship. W\hat we’re really talking about right now, our emotional intelligence skills, and if you’ve listened to the podcast before have heard me speak about this topic many times, and I have other podcasts available for you on this topic, go to the Communication That Connects content collection on the blog. I think, actually, I do have a whole collection about emotional intelligence skills because it is so fundamentally important.

But when we’re able to manage ourselves well enough that we’re able to connect empathetically with another person, it means that we manage that emotional part of our brain, that limbic system that just reacts, well enough so that we can turn that newer part of our brain, the thinking part of our brain, we can turn that back on again. Because it’s in that new part of our brain that we have, certainly, logic and reasoning, but that’s also where we have accurate empathy.

We have mind sight, we can put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their perspective. But we have to be relatively calm in order to be able to do that. We need to feel safe in order to feel safe enough to enter into somebody else’s world and perspective, to try to understand them. When you’re feeling really upset or reactive, you can’t do that.

So it’s only by calming ourselves down and understanding ourselves and coaching ourselves through that moment that we’re able to give our partner the benefit of the doubt or become curious, right? Like, “Why are they saying that?”

So an example of what it looks like to react instead of respond, I think we could all see this like, Mark calls Katie to cancel a date. She reacts by getting really angry or texting, “You don’t even care about me. I can’t believe you did this,” blah, blah, blah, says something mean. That would be a reaction or going full ice queen, like, “Okay” — also not terribly effective. 

Or, in that moment, Katie could take a minute and slow down and think about, “hmm, I am having feelings about this. I’m feeling hurt, I’m feeling disappointed, I was really looking forward to seeing him. I think I’m also maybe feeling a little bit nervous that he doesn’t want to spend time with me as much as I want to spend time with him, and that’s never a good feeling. So this is kind of triggering my stuff. I, Katie, know that I have a tendency to maybe think that people don’t like me, or that they’re mad at me, or that I’ve done something wrong.

This stuff is getting triggered, I have some of my old shame, anxiety, things coming up right now. And I know because of my life experiences that when I act from these feelings, I say and do things that, in retrospect, are not good for my relationships long term. So before I text this guy back, I’m gonna do some deep breathing, I might journal for a minute, I might take a quick walk around the block, I might take a shower, I might whatever. But I know that if I do what I usually do, it’s not going to end well.”

So Katie goes and does that, calms herself down, gets clear around, “yes, these are my triggers, I know what’s going on,” and then is able to respond much more appropriately. And say, with authentic vulnerability, “I’m really sad to hear that we couldn’t get together because I was really looking forward to seeing you tonight. I hope that everything is okay.”

By going into this curiosity place where she’s now interacting with another human, who has stuff going on too, who has life experience, who might have stuff coming up, but it’s her ability to coach herself through that moment, to say what is true, “I’m disappointed, I was really looking forward to this,” and also go into that compassion and empathy and curiosity mode for another human. “What happened, Mark? I hope that everything is going okay,” that is genuine. 

I don’t know, it may be true that Mark has met somebody else that he would like to see on Friday night instead of Katie. That is absolutely valid and certainly happens, and Katie has behaved in such a way that she is opening a door to a very positive relationship with Mark because something could have happened with Mark that she doesn’t know about yet.

If that was the case, Mark will experience her as being caring, as being emotionally safe, as being responsive, as being a good friend to him, rather than making an assumption about what’s going on and behaving in a way that if Mark does have a legitimate reason for canceling the date, Katie is never going to find out what that was because Mark is going to be like, “Whoa, I don’t think I like that.” That damages the developing relationship that he had with Katie. That’s just a very simple dating example, but that happens in all kinds of relationships, and certainly in long term partnerships.

If reactivity leads you to jump to assumptions and behave in ways that are damaging to relationships, those moments add up to a lot of negativity and create negative reaction cycles, where the person on the other side of that is now having a negative reaction to you. That will precipitate another negative reaction to them, versus the ability to respond in a way that, at the very least, keeps your own side of the street scrupulously clean.

You are taking extreme ownership for how you are showing up in a relationship and giving the person on the other side every opportunity to respond to you in a positive and relationship-building way that will nurture your bond.

But again, that requires your experience of emotional safety to be authentic and vulnerable even, and thoughtful and curious in those moments, rather than reactively hostile or self-protective, right. So, tools for this if we want to learn how to do this, we can look into emotional intelligence skills to guide our reactions in these moments.

Emotional intelligence has four components. One is the ability to understand what you yourself are feeling — to notice that. The second component of emotional intelligence is to be able to manage and regulate your own feelings, to calm yourself down, and controlling yourself in those moments, because without that, we just we react, right? The third component of emotional intelligence is then once we are calmer, we can then look into the thoughts, feelings, psychology of another person to try to understand and have accurate empathy for them.

Then the fourth component is being able to manage the relationship with another person that we understand ourselves or managing our feelings, we understand another person, and now we are managing that relationship in a positive way.

That comes from really understanding another person, to say, “what is going on for them?” Or “how would I find out what is going on for them, so that I can then respond in a way that nurtures and supports that bond rather than damages it?” So it’s very intentional responsiveness that is for the purpose of strengthening a relationship. 

To be able to do this in yourself, again, first requires a lot of self awareness. This is oftentimes, I think, the most important and most difficult first step in this work, because it takes energy and intention and time to gain the self awareness that we all need to be able to manage all the rest of it in these moments.

For example, if you’re not aware of your triggers, or your tendencies, or the vulnerable moments, or why you get upset in certain situations, it is very difficult to manage your own emotions to calm yourself down. Because calming yourself down requires being able to shift your thoughts into something that feels better. Sometimes, a different physical response, even, can change the way that you feel.

But this is important and challenging personal growth work for all of us that often happens, either through great growth-oriented therapy that helps you gain insight, but that also helps you shift your thoughts and behaviors. I just want to say something out loud. Traditional psychotherapy is about the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders. It is behavioral health care. If you would like to use your insurance to pay for therapy, it requires you being diagnosed with a disorder, and then that therapy is the treatment for this disorder.

While that is certainly valid and true, psychiatric disorders are very real, and they do require treatment in order to heal or manage. That’s true for anxiety, depression, trauma, bipolar disorder, like there are all kinds of stuff for which this is appropriate. But there’s also kind of a different realm where therapy — or oftentimes, honestly, coaching can be a much more appropriate stance — which is growth-oriented therapy, that you’re not here to treat a psychiatric condition.

It is not medically necessary treatment for something. You’re okay. You’re just seeking to gain insight into why do I tend to get emotional or respond in ways that really aren’t good for my relationships in these moments? It does not mean that there is something wrong with you. It means that you’re a human who has not yet done this very important personal growth work. 

Coaching can oftentimes be a very productive venue for doing this kind of work. If you come in to coaching with a goal of saying, “I would like to have healthier relationships.I would like to be able to respond really appropriately and effectively in different relational situations, and I’ve noticed that one of my obstacles to being able to do that is that I have these automatic flare ups, where I might say or do things in the moment that aren’t crazy, they’re not going into psychopathology, I’m not throwing a chair out a window or trying to kill myself. I am saying hurtful things, or I am shutting down, I turned into an ice queen when I feel criticized.” Welcome to the human club. 

To work with a coach or — I should say a life coach, because many people don’t know this, but most folks running around calling themselves coaches do not have any training or education in coaching psychology, much less counseling psychology. Coaching is an unregulated profession. So literally, anybody can call themselves a coach, build a website, start seeing clients, buyer beware. So just be on the lookout for that.

When I am talking about coaching, I, as a therapist, utilize coaching psychology and coaching strategies in my growth work with clients, because traditional insight-oriented talk therapy can also keep people really stuck when it comes to this stuff because it just stays in insight. It is talking about reactions and processing feelings, and “yep, I guess I’m connecting the dots and understanding myself.”

All of this is a very important first step, but many, many therapists did not receive a kind of coaching model orientation when it comes to this work, by virtue of that, believe maybe that insight is enough, or they’re just by “processing feelings,” that will lead to change in somebody’s day-to-day life. In my experience, that is frequently not true.

Therapy — psychotherapy — is extremely… It is necessary, it is totally appropriate when there is a mental health condition, when there is a diagnosis, when there’s trauma, when there’s really old hard, deep stuff that needs to be processed. Yes, we go there. For people who are just wanting to work on their emotional intelligence skills, and their ability to be better communicators, and to handle these moments more effectively, a coaching model certainly starts with that insight orientation. “Why do I do this?” “What do I want to do differently?” Because we have to have that.

But then it really turns into teaching much more active skills and strategies for how: How do I do that in the moment? What do I need to be telling myself in the moment or literally doing differently in order to take it from a seven on that emotional scale back down to a three, at which point I am able to then engage with this other person in the way that I really want to?

Also, teaching empathy skills: how do I understand what is going on inside another person well enough, so that I have what I need to be able to respond appropriately to them? Then certainly, teaching those relational and communication skills for knowing what to say, or how to respond effectively to other people in these moments. That is also a learned skill. That is all part of emotional intelligence coaching. 

I just wanted to throw that out there because this isn’t the kind of thing that any of us can learn how to do just by listening to a podcast. This is a process; it is not an event. I wanted to provide you with guidance and direction on how this process actually works.

Stage one, it is developing self-awareness and insight and putting together goals of how you would like to do this differently. The insight work helps you understand the obstacles. Once you understand what those obstacles are, then you can begin practicing the skills and strategies that will allow you to be more just calm within yourself in those moments.

Then from that competence in calmness, then it becomes much more easy to really have accurate empathy for the other person in front of you and also skill-building around knowing what to say. What do I do? What do I say? That is not even just responsive, but responsive in an intentional way that allows me to build very, very successful relationships, with the understanding that the person on the other side of this equation may not have had the benefit of doing the kind of work that we’re talking about today. 

The person on the other side of this may still be reactive, they may not have been working on their emotional intelligence skills or their self-management skills the way that you have. They’re going to do what they’re going to do until they do their own growth work as you have. But you will be responding in a way that allows, and invests in, creates a prepared environment that is much more conducive for another person to have a positive relationship with you.

If the person on the other side is able to do that the way that you’re showing up in those moments, will help them come closer to you, help them feel safer with you, help them feel more connected and positive towards you if their own capacity allows them to do that. But you are fully responsible and taking that full responsibility for doing everything that you can to allow that to happen. They may or may not be able to do that yet. That’s okay, you’re doing it. So I hope that helps.

Also, we’ve really been talking a lot about how this shows up in personal, often romantic relationships, because that really is ground zero for this. But, reactivity at work is very much related to this. The things that trigger stress experiences in us, or we often have even subconscious reactions to authority figures at work who can occupy the same emotional space as parents when we’re on the job.

Co-workers can often feel relationally, like siblings or friends. Again, this isn’t a conscious thing; this is a subconscious thing. But we can still experience the same kinds of reactivity on the job, and sometimes, in response to the work itself.

Being able to do these things in your personal life will also enable you to slow down in these moments, notice, “why am I feeling triggered by what Barb in accounting just said?” Slowing down, “What might be happening here? How would I like to respond to this in a way that supports this professional relationship that I have, but also supports my enjoyment and satisfaction in my career?” Using emotional intelligence at work skills are vitally important to being able to do this.

Again, certainly, in our personal lives, too, it’s exactly the same kind of process that we need to do to become less reactive or impulsive just on our own, right? Understanding, “I have a tendency to say yes to things that I probably shouldn’t say yes to. I feel excited in the moment and ‘yeah, no problem,’ or maybe a reflexive no to certain things in the moment, self awareness that this is a form of reactivity, that I get swept away by whatever I’m thinking or feeling in the moment. And then after the fact, wished I’d handled that differently.”

Going back into that self discovery phase of why might that be? Why does that make sense? And what are the obstacles or triggers or old narratives that I need to be aware of? Like, what makes me do that? And then how do I want to be coaching myself through those moments differently?

When that situation happens again, how would I like to respond based on my values based on my long term intentions, based on what I know about myself, and then putting together an action plan that prepares you to be able to do that thoughtfully and responsively, rather than reactively.

All of these different life domains are connected to these core emotional intelligence skills that allow you to respond and be the person that you want to be in all of these different moments and life domains, rather than just reacting and not even quite knowing why. This is a huge topic.

We talked about so many things, and there’s just so much here, but I hope that you heard some ideas or perspectives that helped maybe shift your understanding of your own experience and maybe what might be happening in your relationships. I hope that it’s a resource to you to maybe try some things differently. 

Of course, if you want to keep this going, there’s so much more available for you on our website at growingself.com. In any of the collections you’ll find information around healthy relationships, communication skills — either personally or work — in the personal growth collection, emotional wellness, emotional regulation, emotional intelligence.

You can learn more about the differences between therapy and coaching on my website as well. I have huge knowledge bases that do deep dives into that if you are curious to learn any more about those things. Certainly, if you would like to work with a therapist, a licensed therapist who practices coaching, you are welcome to get in touch with me or any of the counselors or coaches on my team here at Growing Self for a free consultation.

Alright, thanks so much for listening today, and I’ll be back in touch next week. In the meantime, more Cass McCombs with Sleeping Volcanoes and how to manage them. Alright, you guys talk to you later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *