As I worked around the house this morning, I pondered the idea of reacting versus responding, as well as what the differences and connotations of both words are. Eventually, I decided to look at the definitions of the two words. You can find definitions for react and respond on dictionary.com.
When I think of “react,” two things immediately come to mind – chemicals and emotions. Chemicals react. They have no choice. The moment they touch, there is a reaction. The reaction might be considered good or bad, but it happens without fail. When I think of human reactions, my mind immediately goes to emotion-driven, knee-jerk reactions, but are they all negative? Certainly not.
I’ve spent most of my career working in IT in law firms. With both technology and lawyers, things are usually fast-paced and unexpected things happen on a fairly regular basis. Clients and end users have issues. IT staff and lawyers are called on to respond. So, what are the differentiators between emotional, potentially disastrous reactions and thoughtful, well executed responses? Pausing, planning, and training.
After my recent post on pausing for reflection, I naturally began thinking about the role of the pause in differentiating between reacting and responding. To me, responding implies a pause, even if it is a very brief one. The first four definitions for react start with the words “to act,” whereas one definition for respond is simply “to react favorably.”
When lawyers and IT respond to situations, they do an analysis. However brief it may be, that analysis involves pausing to look at the facts, digesting the initial information given and seeking additional clarification, before responding. It may seem maddening to some who want immediate action, but that brief pause is frequently the difference in acting to solve the wrong problem or responding in a less effective manner. We pause so that we “react favorably.”
The second differentiator between reacting and responding, which I added after giving it some thought, is training. Lawyers and those in IT spend countless hours honing their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. You have to experience and play out different scenarios to their possible conclusions. Fully experiencing a situation and the emotions that go with it is what gives you the ability to get above a situation and look at it with an analytical eye. This helps remove the emotions that may cloud your judgment and cause those less skilled to simply react. You must train and practice diligently to get to the point where the right reaction is second nature to you.
You can’t fully know whether you will react or respond until you are in a given situation. It is impossible to go over every possible variable in complex scenarios in training. This is where the concept of mastery comes in. You continue to hone your skills over time as you experience different situations and continue to practice. However, you must also continue to pause and reflect after the chaos has passed in order to analyze and learn from those experiences.
The final differentiator is planning. Part of any training for complex situations is having a plan and knowing how to execute that plan. I have been involved in quite a few disaster recovery planning processes, as well as disaster responses. These are high level response scenarios with lots of moving parts and people. At a lower level, risk identification and mitigation are critical parts of planning even small projects that frequently get less emphasis than they should. In project planning, you have to pause and really think through the possible roadblocks.
As British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said, “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”
The definitions for react include: “to act in opposition,” “to act in response,” and “to act in a reverse direction or manner.” This to me says that there is no plan. There is simply action. That action may be the correct action or it may not. Having a plan increases your odds of it being the correct action. Therefore, I like Maya Angelou’s twist on Disraeli’s original phrase.
Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between. – Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Having no surprises is a key part of planning. “Preppers” get a bad rap, but I like to think of them as the ultimate personal disaster recovery project planners. They know their bases are covered. They have a plan, and they have the supplies to enact that plan, so their fears are assuaged. However, they haven’t always taken the time to do the training and hone their analytical skills, so when the proverbial shit hits the fan, their emotions may still get the best of them. You must have all the components – pausing for analysis, training, and planning.
As you approach the New Year, why not pause (even briefly), plan, and seek the training you need, so you can start responding or at least “reacting favorably”?
Also published on Medium.