“Act, Don’t React”. For years this advice perplexed me. How can we possibly “act” to a situation, not “react”? After all, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” not “an equal and opposite action”. A reaction is a law of nature, so we have no control, right? Well… not quite.
When someone or something makes you angry, hurt, scared, or all of the above, you experience an automatic “reaction” – those feelings of anger, pain and fear. Inwardly, you may feel like screaming and throwing things, or like running away. You feel all kinds of small, hard emotions deep inside your belly. That’s a reaction. You may not have control over that. However, you do have control over what you show to the world. You have control over how you “act”.
When you encounter a situation that makes you want to behave badly, step back. Try to understand that your feelings are not in control. You are in control, and as powerful as your feelings may be, you don’t have to let them loose. Set those feelings aside, and when you get some alone time, if you still want to, you can let ‘em rip: scream at the top of your lungs, say all kinds of bad words, cry, throw a pillow at the wall, stomp your feet – have a good ‘ol tantrum. But in the moment that the situation occurs, when you are face-to-face with another person, (or face-to-rear-bumper if you’re in traffic,) maintain your calm. It can be difficult, I know.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Your perception of the situation is different than the other person’s.
- “Fault” is not that important because it’s usually shared.
- The other person may be feeling hurt, angry or scared, too.
Trying to understand exactly where the other person is coming from may be too difficult until you have a cool head; but you can still acknowledge that your perception, your viewpoint, is not the only one. Perception is a tricky thing, because it involves so much more than whatever is driving a given situation. Perception involves back-story, baggage even. In “The Three Laws of Performance,” authors Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan point out that “Situations occur differently for each person. Not realizing this can make another’s actions seem out of place”. They define “occur” as “the reality that arises within and from your perspective on the situation… [this] includes your view of the past (why things are the way they are) and the future (where all this is going).” This is very important because now we can clearly see that if you are in an altercation with an individual, the two of you are having different experiences. You are each experiencing the same moment, but very differently, because your perceptions include preconceived attitudes about the past and the future. You have a clear argument in your head, a clear notion of why you are right and they are wrong, because of these preconceptions.
That’s why you have to step back, outside of your “occurrence” and “act” calm. I am not a big fan of the whole “count to ten” thing because it shows that you are about to lose control and are making an active effort to maintain it – this is far from optimum. If you absolutely cannot reconcile yourself to handling a situation when it happens, then just play it cool and say you want to think things over for a bit, and you’ll get back to the other person. Then, remembering that perception and how an event occurs is different for each person, really think about how you can approach the situation differently, and try to see the other person’s side. Focus on how to move forward and create a win-win experience. These types of situations are valuable learning experiences – they build your problem-solving toolkit. You can use this moment of struggle as an opportunity for growth. Like Hellen Keller said: “We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”
An action is an outward display. A reaction is internal. We have control over our actions – we may not always exercise that control, but it’s always there. “Act, don’t react” means: take charge of the situation by mastering your own behavior.
So, when you’re dealing with an unpleasant reaction, you need to “act” like the situation is under control. Don’t react. Not now. Do that later. Now, just Act. Act like a grown-up, confident person who has mastery over his feelings and can maintain composure. You’ll find that, the more you act the part, the more you become that person. And that’s gonna feel pretty good.
Maintaining composure does a lot: it helps to defuse the situation – if you can maintain control, the other person will calm down, too. And it’s good for your reputation. You’ll be known for keeping a cool head, even when provoked. That makes you seem reliable and responsible – someone who can be counted on in tough situations. In the business world, as in all aspects of your life, this is a useful reputation to have.
I leave you with this quote from B.C. Forbes: “The man who is bigger than his job keeps cool. Confident that he is equal to any emergency, he does not lose his head. He refuses to become rattled, to fly off in a temper, to stamp and holler and swear. The man who would control others must be able to control himself.”