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.