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Reactive Behaviors

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

What is reactivity anyway? We react to things day in and day out: to what’s going on in our daily lives, to the actions of others, to some news we receive. Don’t we have to react and respond to the world around us? So what is this risky category of ‘reactive behavior’?

Michael Williams devotes his blog ‘Agency‘ to practical and theoretical aspects of reactivity, with the intention of enabling readers to “act [more deliberately and consciously] in situations marked by confusion, anger, and shame.” .Williams gives us some direction in exploring these questions.

What’s in a word?

Etymologically, “react” and “respond” have very different connotations. To respond originates from the Latin respondere, meaning “to answer or promise in return”. Responding to stimuli in the world around us, then, implies recognizing and “answering” to it in some form. On the other hand, to react – ‘re’ (again) ‘act’ (a doing) – means “to do again”, often with the connotation of opposite reciprocal force.

Maybe this seems like a trivial difference, a silly semantic game, but there’s an insight in it. To react, to ‘act back’ on an event, is to respond by exerting the happening back on itself. Think of a few physical examples, like a rubber band ‘reacting’ to being stretched. Or a rubber ball ‘reacting’ to being thrown against the ground. Any and all force involved in the first action is immediately turned around and reproduced. Now personify it. Say someone throws a punch; there are many ways to respond, but just a few ways to ‘react’! And how about if the punch is verbal? Now we’re getting into the complexities of that harmful category of ‘reactive behaviors.’

What a Shame

According to Williams, reactive behavior is intrinsically related to experiences of shame, which derive from the way we form relationships as children. Shame can be rooted in our vulnerability to those around us, and the way we are encouraged to view relationships as a battle to maintain a level of control or dominance over the other. This is one of the roots of many workplace conflicts I have mediated. We convince ourselves of a false sense of control or dominance that helps us feel emotionally safe. In reality, however, it makes us vulnerable to every dip, bump, or discomfort in a relationship.

The ‘reaction,’ then, is rooted in the attempt to immediately fix, roll back, or undo any perceived loss of control or dominance. We act back on whatever happened, trying to restore our sense of safety by reconstructing that false reality. Our negativity and self talk sets us up for a losing battle.

The Losing Battle

When every hiccup is a threat to your sense of self, anything that goes wrong can feel like a very personal attack. Everything feels like a problem related to the self, and requires reaction to re-subdue the threat. That’s a lot of emotional stress, and a lot of work!

Additionally, the effort to restore control or dominance is based on an unconscious false assumption: that you can have control, or need to dominate, in the first place. The effect to ‘act back’ then actually just creates the next situation, discomfort, or inequality. You might feel safe for a moment, but at the high cost of ruining relationships, escalating conflict, or setting yourself up for another fall.

Most people don’t actually consciously think it’s a good idea to maintain all their relationships by dominating the people around them; nevertheless it’s a highly socialized behavior that we have to decide to unlearn. Some examples of reactive behavior are obvious, (such as returning a punch!) but others are much more subtle. Perhaps a workplace colleague asks you a lot of questions about your idea and you perceive the inquiry as doubting your competence or authority. Rather than identifying your discomfort, or querying for clarification, you say something disdainful. Or maybe what someone says in a meeting strikes you as unkind or impersonal; instead of trying to discern what they meant, or approaching them to express your response constructively, you assume their intention was bad and skulk off, deciding to avoid talking to that person for the rest of the week. Say you and a colleague have different strategies for accomplishing a task and you suggest they do it your way. If they politely and respectfully choose to decline and continue with their own strategy, why does that sometimes feel like an insult and trigger our anger?

All of the examples above could be understood as reactive behaviors. As Williams writes, “most people think of reactivity as yelling or some other angry expression. But, it is SO much more than that! In fact, it is often subtle to the point where you may not even realize you are reacting at all.

Win by Forfeit

In most sports, forfeiting means losing – not so in the world of emotional balance! Giving in to the idea that bumps in the road are normal, that things sometimes go wrong in relationships even when no one intends it, and that there can be equality and flexibility in relationships without losing emotional safety are some of the keys to overcoming your own reactive responses.

Reactive behaviors are really just the symptoms of reactivity. You could treat the symptom by making rules for yourself, but a deeper solution will come from confronting the unconscious assumptions that underpin the foundations of your sense of self and emotional safety in relation to those around you.

For better management of conflict, it is a good practice to recognize your reactive behaviors or hot spots and figure out strategies for minimizing and managing them.  And if you are on a team, try having a group dialogue about your respective hot buttons so your team can stay on task and not get diverted into messy workplace or partnership conflicts.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She became chair of MCDR’s certification committee this year.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.


Author: Ellen Kandell

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1 Comment

  • Ellen,

    Thank you for this article! I really appreciate your voice in describing the dynamics around reactivity. I love your examples of reactive behaviors because they so clearly illustrate the notion of impaired attunement capacity, a loss of what I call our 7th sense. When this happens I believe we are relationally blind, which may evoke fear and shame and, ultimately, reaction. As you imply, it is often difficult to ask clarifying questions of others or ourselves when we are in this state. I believe your work to promote greater awareness of these dynamics makes a difference to our responsive capabilities.

    You also mention the importance of addressing some of the foundational issues around self. I agree with you and would suggest mindfulness practices such as breathing or compassion meditations and others can help do this. Through the very act of looking inward, we connect internally and thereby cultivate our sense of self and intrinsic worth. We also learn to recognize and tolerate various emotions and physical sensations, which helps us to hold any and all experience. There ARE ways forward!

    Finally, I just want to put out there the idea of emotional distancing and how, when we react, we may be defending ourselves by increasing or decreasing emotional distance with another person (or ourselves). By seeing our and others’ behaviors in these terms, we may succeed in accomplishing the universal human challenge of holding experience and responding to it.