Responding Versus Reacting


Within the realm of interpersonal communication and psychology an important distinction is often made between reacting and responding. Being in reaction allows only the most primitive part of our brains to be activated and therefore when we react, we are driven purely by emotion. It is predominately a defensive and instinctual approach where we mirror the behaviours we perceive to be directed at us. If someone raises their voice at us, we raise ours back; if we feel insulted or threatened, we insult or threaten in return.

By contrast, responding is a conscious act. It involves a higher level of cognitive reasoning, and as a result there is a slower and more deliberate quality to our words and actions. Whereas reacting is immediate (and very often done in the ‘heat of the moment’), when we respond we tend to suspend judgment and prior assumptions in order to better understand a situation, and to consider a wide-range of potential solutions before taking action. As such, responding enables us to act from a place of integrity, and to honour our core values as we seek to resolve conflicts constructively.

Although it would be ideal if we were able to respond more often than we react, it is the latter that appears to come most naturally to the majority of people, particularly in situations where we perceive ourselves to be under attack. However, whenever we do react, rarely does it serve us. Instead, it facilitates another round of fractured communication, deepens resentment and intensifies conflicts. While this is certainly true when it comes to our interpersonal relationships, I wonder whether it also applies on a larger scale – in situations where societies or nations feel under attack?

In recent years I’ve observed how often political leaders assume a reactive posture whenever their countries experience a terrorist attack. In the aftermath of recent terror attacks in France, for instance, President Hollande stated his intention to seek revenge. Subsequent to his remarks, the President authorised military action, which he promised to be ‘merciless’. His actions were immediate, defensive, singularly focused on retaliation, and thereby, very much in the spirit of reacting.

President Hollande is by no means alone in his approach; a reactive posture has been adopted by the majority of states involved in counter-terrorist operations. In accordance with this approach, the conditions under which military force may be deployed have been significantly reinterpreted. Instead of being a last resort, military measures have been utilised both as a first resort, but also pre-emptively (that is before an attack has actually occurred).

Just as this reactive posture does not serve us on an individual level, taking a reactive approach to countering terrorism has not diminished its occurrence whatsoever. To the contrary, many would argue that it has intensified the problem. Instead of dissuading and deterring, this retaliatory language has actually emboldened and empowered terrorists. The more we seek revenge, the more we incentivise opponents who also claim to act in the name of revenge. What we end up doing is perpetuating a never ending cycle of violence. Moreover, the rush to act – a key characteristic of reacting –  has led Western countries to abandon and violate their own core values in the name of defeating terrorism.

So what if we were to stop reacting to terrorism and to start responding instead? What might this look like? The first, and perhaps most crucial shift we’d observe is the absence of an immediate, knee-jerk action. By choosing to respond, we would abandon the need to act with urgency, which is often how ill-advised policies and plans take shape. In the space that we create, we would invite more innovative solutions to emerge – ones that may not only be more effective in countering terrorism, while aligned with our core values, but also ones driven with the intention to restore harmony in the aftermath of an attack, instead of seeking revenge. What a welcome change this would be.

Observing the News


In my last post, ‘How to Create the Opposite of Terror’ I discussed the feelings of powerlessness that arise whenever we hear the news of another terrorist attack in some part of the world. Although such feelings are perfectly natural, by dwelling in powerlessness and despair we overlook our capacity as individuals to create the opposite of terror in the world. So how can we begin to do this? How can we step into our power to create more unity, love and compassion on the planet? I would suggest that the first thing we can do is to develop a different approach to the news.

These days we have become so reliant on round-the-clock doses of news, whether it’s listening to hourly updates on the radio, watching live news broadcasts on television or the internet, reading newspapers online, or subscribing to news feeds on our smart phones. For most of us, however, this constant consumption of the news tends to be a rather mechanical process. We don’t usually challenge the content that is presented to us or give too much thought to how it is delivered. When we receive the news, we often do so as unconscious recipients.

But have you ever noticed that any time a terrorist attack occurs the media reports on the incident as though it is the only thing happening in the world? News of the attack is conveyed in the most dramatic manner, through eye-catching headlines, alarmist language and a sense of utmost urgency. The same images flash across our television and computer screens repeatedly and for that moment in time, all unrelated news stories seem to fall by the wayside. Such dramatized reporting helps justify the singular emphasis on an event or attack to the exclusion of any other news. Not only does this style of reporting put us into fear mode, it facilitates misperceptions of our world and grossly exaggerates the threat of terrorism.

Yet, we continue to rely on the news as an independent and impartial source of information, but how reliable is it? Far from reporting the truth, some of the reports we’ve seen in regards to the phenomena of terrorism have been inconsistent, sloppy and downright irresponsible – inconsistent in emphasising attacks in Western countries with less air time devoted to other parts of the world; sloppy in terms of grouping multiple attacks together under a single banner, despite how disparate and unconnected they might by (as seen with the series of recent attacks in Germany); irresponsible in the language that is used to describe such attacks (when will the media learn that the term’ Islamic terrorism’ is as meaningless as it is offensive? Such language only serves to create further divisions). In all these ways, it is clear that the media has become part of the problem.

In terms of the incidents themselves, there is no denying that they are troubling, but by continuing to rehearse the horror and details of each attack, we deliberately overlook other aspects that are of equal, if not greater importance. For example, there is one factor that all terrorist attacks have in common, and that is the overwhelming outpouring of love and empathy that arises in their immediate aftermath. Across each and every situation, we have witnessed a coming together of people and expressions of compassion among complete strangers, irrespective of race, religion and distance. These attacks may be fuelled by ignorance and hate, but they also generate love and bring people together. This was evident in the hundreds of Muslims who attended Catholic Mass in Rouen, and other parts of France, in a show of solidarity following the murder of Father Jacques Hamel. This story did not receive as much attention in the media as the initial attack. But why should we treat this show of solidarity as little more than a post-script, when it shows a much more authentic reflection of the human spirit than the attack itself?

If we want to create the opposite of terror in the world, we need to shift from being passive recipients of the news to conscious observers. This will require us to approach the news with a greater degree of discernment, to limit our exposure to alarmist reporting, and to seek a more authentic account of the world. On this latter point, it is worth highlighting that in addition to all of the attacks we’ve recently heard about, there have been many positive and uplifting developments that have transpired over the past month. Those who are interested in learning more about this are invited to explore the Inspired News Network (INN).

If we are able to become conscious observers of the news, we can begin to create some much-needed distance between ourselves and the events that occur in our world. From that space, we are better placed to respond (rather than react) to incidents of terrorism. I will pick up on the theme of responding versus reacting to terrorism in my next post, so please stay tuned.