Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Reacting Versus Responding


The next time you find yourself in a stressful communication, pause. Take one deep breath - buy yourself a little time with this breath. This pause can change everything.

Bring to mind a time when you were engaged in stressful interaction with someone. Were your responses thoughtful and timely? The answer for many of us is no. Why is this? Because when the stress response is activated, we tend to engage the more primitive parts of our brains—the parts that help us survive when there is danger. We are triggered and we react.



On the contrary, when the stress response is not activated, we can engage the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain that is wise and thoughtful. When we engage this region of the brain, we can see more possibilities and make better decisions. We respond with greater clarity and wisdom. While the difference in the terminology of these two words (react vs. respond) may be subtle, the impact of engaging in one versus the other can be immense.



Take this example. You are speaking with a patient who is irritable or disgruntled—a patient who is “pushing your buttons.” You react, say the first thing that comes to mind, and regret this later. Upon reflection you may think about the different ways you could have handled this situation. If we step back from a situation such as this for just a brief moment (once we realize there is no actual threat) we can begin to see various options. Perhaps to respond calmly, diffuse the situation and respond later, or not respond at all. In my personal and professional experiences, I have had much more success when I pause before responding, rather than reacting.



Practice responding instead of reacting: 



The next time you find yourself in a stressful communication, pause. Take one deep breath, really lengthening the exhalation of the breath cycle. Buy yourself a little time with this breath. See if there are options to your response by asking yourself: do I need to say something now? What would be the most effective way to say it? And even in the midst of this stress can I bring some kindness to myself and the other person? This is challenging and takes practice. However, I have seen over and over again that this pause can change everything.