Reacting vs responding: Emotional intelligence


Kevin Mangelschots

When it comes to difficult situations and circumstances, you are presented with a choice. You can either react or respond to your reality. You may be wondering what the difference between the two is.

  • Reacting

    Reacting is the gut reaction and how you are inclined to act upon a situation, often based on fear and insecurities.

  • Responding

    Responding is experiencing the situation, observing it, and deciding the best course of action based on values such as reason, empathy, harmony, etc.

    It can be challenging to withhold immediate reactive emotions in difficult times. When we allow the negativity to get the best of us, we give up our power to the situation or circumstance. The reaction is even more fruitless if we face something out of our control. When I refer to stoicism, most might assume this means to feel nothing or to be numb to the experiences which we encounter – this is not the case. The ancient Stoics did not believe emotional repression was the answer but treated the emotional life more like the weather. When it is raining, you might grab an umbrella, but this won’t stop you from getting to work.

What you have been through in your life forms your perspective, your response to adversity, and so much more. Unfortunately, sometimes our world view is not cohesive to how we should handle life with a good character. Essentially, we shouldn’t expect emotions to be a useful and reliable guide for behavior. Of course, this does not mean self-reflection and impulse decisions in danger (something that can save your life) are not valuable for life. There will always be external situations that bother us, but if we learn to respond and not merely react, we can make things better and not worse.

“You can do 100 things right, but it takes only one thoughtless reactive action to destroy it all.”
– Dr. Joseph Levry

Lessons from history

One of the most notable names in Greek mythology is Hercules, born a demigod by Zeus and Hera. Hercules was one of the Stoic philosophers’ beloved gods, and generally, throughout history for his ability to overcome adversity. One of the most well-known myths involving the demi-god is his triumphant escapades in The Twelve Labors of Hercules. I will present a shorthand summary of the story. Hera (his mother) vowed to eradicate Hercules because he resembled her disloyal husband, Zeus. Sounds like a pretty mean mother, if you ask me. However, after Hercules kills his wife and children after going insane from the madness Hera struck upon him, he is put in a position to make up for his wrongs by fulfilling twelve impossible quests assigned to him from Eurystheus, king of Tiryns. Through discipline, courage, and superhuman strength – Hercules overcomes all of these obstacles.

The moral of the story is that we can’t control some things in our life, and we should respond with the best of our abilities and virtue in times of crisis. Hercules didn’t choose his mother’s desire to kill him or be assigned with the most challenging quests within Greek mythology, but he handled it all with a calm resilient attitude. Life is difficult, but we can choose to overcome each challenge or emotion, one at a time, with a responsive mindset.

Learning to respond

The critical element to responding is withholding your initial reaction, using a mindful pause.

Instead of partaking in what your instinctual response to an upsetting or difficult situation might be, observe the thought and intended reaction. We don’t need to act immediately, take a few seconds to pause and breathe.

Wait for the reaction to disappear.

Once you have composure, reflect on the most intelligent and empathetic response to fit your situation. What can you do or say to trigger love in your spouse, calm down your colleagues, help make the situation better?

Doing this is difficult; we refer to this as ‘taking the higher road’, and there is no reward waiting for you except emotional control and lower cortisol levels. It may not be easy at first, but with time, you will get better at responding. Don’t worry if you mess up — just try better next time. Take note of what happened to trigger your reaction, and pay attention when something similar happens again.

Be mindful, pause, then consider a thoughtful, compassionate response.

What is emotional intelligence (EQ)?

Intelligence has a vast arena of definitions and meanings, and one of the most beneficial forms is emotional intelligence.

If you desire to better understand, use, and manage your emotions in a positive way, a great place to start is learning how to respond instead of reacting.

When you begin to further develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, etc., your life has the potential to radically change for the better.

I struggled (and still do in some areas) for a long time in understanding my emotions, why they were happening and what they meant until I got honest with myself and began to really reflect upon my inward nature. I highly encourage checking out this article all about emotional intelligence, what it can do for you, and how to develop it more thoroughly.

Final thoughts

Deepening our knowledge and applying emotional intelligence and responsiveness in the times we are experiencing now can be extraordinarily helpful.

A pandemic isn’t something we had in mind or planned, and it has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, mostly downs. We can still choose how we will respond to this awful matter happening. Will you sit on the couch with the extra time and watch more Netflix? Or, will you pick up a new hobby that you’ve always wanted to try? Will you sulk and think of how bad you have it? Or, realize this is a collective challenge and approach people with empathy?

No one is perfect, everyone is a work in progress, but it is worth thinking of whether we are progressing in the right direction. The choice is yours, and I hope you choose wisely, my friend.

Guest author bio

This article was written by Kurt Emling.

You can find more of his work at his personal blog