Between working a full-time job, spending time with our family and friends, and trying to catch up on Netflix’s ever-expanding roster of movies and shows, managing our emotions is hard work. If you’re wondering how to be less reactive, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between being reactive vs. proactive and how to become less reactive in the workplace.
Proactive versus Reactive
There’s a big difference between being proactive vs. reactive. What it comes down to most is our own impulse control.
Being reactive is passive, whereas being proactive is—you guessed it—active. Do you want to let things happen to you, or do you want to make things happen? Do you want to let the outside world and other people dictate your state of mind and how you feel, or do you want to decide that for yourself?
Let’s consider some proactive vs. reactive scenarios.
Proactive vs. Reactive Examples
Proactive vs. reactive behavior is easy to spot if you pay attention to and reflect on your actions. For example, let’s say you’re assigned a difficult assignment at work. A reactive way to respond is to sigh and shake your (mental) fists in anger. Why do I have to do that? Why is this happening to me? A proactive way to respond is to say I choose to complete this assignment because I am the person most qualified to do so.
Let’s say you give a friendly hello to your coworker in the morning, but they brush right by you without a word. If you are reactive, you might make a snide comment in return or hold a grudge, making a mental note not to say hi tomorrow. If you are proactive, you will continue to make an effort to be polite because you’ve decided that’s who you are regardless of whether or not you receive a hello back.
Or let’s say a coworker sends you a harsh email outlining a mistake you made, but you know it wasn’t your mistake. A reactive response is to send a hasty email defending yourself, throwing your other coworker under the bus in the process. A proactive response is to take a moment (or an evening) to collect your thoughts. When your emotions have calmed down, you can respond thoughtfully and with empathy. You will explain the misunderstanding and ask if there’s anything you can do to help make sure this doesn't happen again in the future.
How to Be Less Reactive
Learning how to be a less reactive person isn’t easy. It’s natural to want to respond immediately, especially if we disagree with or are offended by something a coworker says. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible. There are many steps you can take to become a less reactionary person, and we’ll outline some key strategies you can implement straight away.
Don’t Be Quick to React
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” - usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
Ever had one of those “shoot! Why did I say that?” moments? Yes, you most certainly have. Usually those moments happen after we’ve responded too quickly. Take your time. Being slow to react is better than reacting quickly before you’ve had time to consider an appropriate response.
We’re not suggesting this will be easy to do at first; learning impulse control will take a great deal of effort. But you can begin practicing today. When confronted with a difficult or awkward situation, take a few deep breaths before allowing words to tumble haphazardly out of your mouth.
Even if you don’t consider yourself particularly reactionary or quick to anger, we can sometimes feel pressured to respond to someone before we’re ready for fear that we’ll make the person we’re dealing with impatient. While it’s possible they may lose their patience, reacting without putting due consideration into what we’re about to say is much more likely to escalate the situation than taking a moment to think before we react.
Understand Your Circle of Control
There’s no need to react to what you can’t control—that is to say, it’s useless to get worked up over something when there’s nothing you can do to change it.
But what’s in your power and what isn’t? Understanding what is inside your circle of control and what is outside of it helps to ease anxiety and provides a sense of purpose and direction; it allows you to know what in your life you can be proactive about and what you need to accept and move on from.
For example, what other people do and say, what they feel, what’s on the news, the past, and the weather are all things that are outside your circle of control. Your own actions and decisions, such as what you say, who you spend time with, and how you react, are what’s inside your circle of control.
Before you react to something, take a few deep breaths and consider whether or not the emotion and energy you’re about to expend will do anything to change the situation. If not, then do your best to let it go.
Look at it this way; by reacting too quickly or losing your temper, you surrender your power—you’re giving in to the person or situation you feel challenged by. When you understand what is inside your circle of control, you are able to be proactive rather than reactive and make decisions based on your own values.
📚Learn more about your Circle of Control: Combating a Lack of Control at Work.
Edit Before You Speak or Respond
This is easier to do by email or text than in person, but the same principles apply. Practice editing your responses before putting them out into the world.
If communicating with someone in person, practice thinking about what you want to say before blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. Edit yourself. Former President Barack Obama is well-known for his excellent communication and oration skills, and he takes frequent pauses when he speaks. His calm, proactive communication style makes him appear steady and unflappable, as opposed to reactionary, erratic, and temperamental.
If communicating by email, text, or Slack message, practice not responding right away. Take a step back and give yourself space from whatever it is that’s causing your reactive response. Return to the message later with a clear head so that you can respond thoughtfully, without your initial emotional reaction clouding your judgment.
Don’t let other people get your goat; instead, think before you speak or craft a written response.
Breathe and Be Mindful of Your Own Body
Your body, mind, and emotions are all deeply connected. If you’re feeling grumpy and irritable, think about why you feel that way. Are you tired, hungry, or thirsty?
‘Hanger’ isn’t just a Snickers marketing campaign; it’s a real thing—just ask science. Hunger releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which are associated with stress and tension; hunger can also bring on a state of acute hypoglycemia, which spurs feelings of anger.
Dehydration, even mild, can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, confusion, and fatigue. And we all know what not getting enough sleep can do to our moods.
Be mindful of what’s going on in your body. Even if you don’t feel hungry or thirsty, ask yourself when the last time you ate or had a glass of water was. Don’t sit and stew over your emotions; be proactive about managing them. Sadness and anxiety bring on feelings of hopelessness, but there are steps you can take yourself to ease these feelings, and they can be as simple as having a snack or making sure a bottle of water is always on your desk.
Breathing exercises also help calm us down and clear our heads. Anger and anxiety cause our breathing to become quick and shallow, which prevents oxygen from getting to our brains, impairing our ability to control our emotions and accurately perceive what’s going on around us.
When you feel angry, intentionally breathe deeply and slowly. Ensure you breathe into your diaphragm and not your chest. When you breathe from your diaphragm, your stomach expands, but your shoulders don’t move. If your shoulders rise with each breath, you’re not breathing as deeply as you could be.
Try the box breathing exercise:
- Exhale for 4 seconds until all the air is out of your lungs.
- Inhale for 4 seconds, filling every corner of your lungs. Send the air into your stomach so that it expands with the breath.
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
- Exhale for 4 seconds.
- Hold for 4 seconds.
- Repeat 4 times.
This kind of intentional deep breathing helps settle down your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which can lower blood pressure and keep you calm, cool, and collected. Box breathing is even used by Navy SEALs.
Remember Everyone Has Different Communication Preferences
Don’t personalize someone else’s behavior—it usually has nothing to do with you.
We all communicate differently, and—completely unintentionally—these preferences can sometimes lead to conflict. If you’re introverted, you may find it rude that a coworker continues to pester you with conversation when you “clearly” want to be left alone. Why can’t they take a hint? If you’re extroverted, you may find it rude that a coworker always ignores you, leaving you to wonder why they don’t like you. What have you done wrong?
Whether loud or quiet, we all need to work together. Be proactive about facilitating better communication in the workplace by organizing work personality tests and team building exercises. These things go a long way toward helping us understand our coworkers’ idiosyncrasies, work habits, and communication preferences.
Understanding that everyone has different natural communication tendencies can help you tone down your own natural reactions. Take a deep breath and know that your coworker is likely responding the way they feel is best, even if it doesn’t match your own preferences.
By gaining a greater understanding of our coworkers and building a healthy rapport, we can meet them halfway and learn not to take things personally.
📝 Read our guide on Personalities in the Workplace - Introverts vs. Extroverts.
Have Empathy For Others
You have no idea what’s going on in someone else’s personal life.
One of your coworkers may be in a rush because they’re going to see a close family member in the hospital. Or maybe they were short with you because they were up all night cleaning the skunk smell off of their children and dog.
You don’t know the full story behind someone’s reactions. Show empathy towards the people you work with, even (and especially) if they respond harshly to something you say. Be patient and give them space. If you stay calm and don’t react emotionally, they may come back to you the next day or the next week and apologize for their behavior. And if not, well, their actions are not within your circle of control, so why waste your time and energy worrying about it?
This isn’t to say that someone’s difficult personal life gives them carte blanche to treat others with disrespect, but giving a reactionary response back does no one any good. Don’t make a bad situation worse by reacting emotionally in the moment out of a sense of pride or hurt feelings. Other people’s actions don’t excuse your own rude behavior—you get to decide how you react to things.
Be proactive about your choices and behavior, and have empathy for people who let their emotions get the better of them. After all, it happens to the best of us—even Larry! 🐶
More From Blue Summit Supplies
💡 Learn how to be less emotionally reactive by honing your emotional intelligence: At-Work Emotional Intelligence Examples and Advice.
💡 Use our tips for making office friends and learn more about what to do about tension at work: How to Make Office Friends and Get Along with Coworkers.
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