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The Role of Reactive Behavior in Conflict

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
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. We have to react and respond to the world around us – so why does “reactive behavior” have a bad connotation?

Maybe what we really aim to do is to respond. The words “react” and “respond” have very different meanings. To respond originates from the Latin respondere, meaning “to answer or promise in return”.  Responding to stimuli in the world around us implies recognizing and answering to it in some form. On the other hand, to react means “to do again,” often with the connotation of opposite reciprocal force.

Perhaps this seems like a minor difference, but consider this: To react, to “act back” on an event, is to respond by exerting the happening back on itself. Think of a physical example, like a rubber ball reacting to being thrown against the ground. Any force involved in the first action is immediately turned around and reproduced. Now, think about it this way: Say someone throws a punch – there are many ways to respond, but just a few ways to react. What if the punch is verbal? This is considered reactive behavior.

Too often, we 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. 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 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.

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 a reaction to subdue the threat. That’s a lot of emotional stress!

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 subtle. 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?

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 inherent in the foundations of your sense of emotional safety in relation to those around you.

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

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Author: Ellen Kandell

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