Was I responding or reacting? Recently I was in a situation where I got very angry at someone, which in my opinion at that time was more than justified. Someone behind me said to me “Don’t shoot the messenger!”
Although I instinctively knew she was right, I was unable to control myself and refrain from “shooting the messenger”.
Along with about thirty other people, I had just embarked and disembarked a plane twice within 20 minutes. The messenger, in this case the airline representative, had been sent to give us the bad news; namely that our flight had been cancelled, there was no alternative for the next 24 hours and we would have to pay to spend the night in a hotel and for a taxi to take us there! I had been travelling for three days at this point.
A matter of choice?
You might well agree with my (original) thought that my reaction was justified but if we look deeper, there is also justification for not shooting the messenger. She was the messenger not only in the sense of being the airline rep, but in the sense that she was pushing a button and providing me with an opportunity to “practice” choosing between responding or reacting.
What is the difference?
Michael Brown in his book The Presence Process says ” A reaction is unconscious behaviour…directed outward…in an attempt to defend ourselves or attack another”
Response, on the other hand, is defined as “…a conscious choice to contain and constructively internalize…with the intent …to integrate unconsciousness.”
The view here is that responsive behaviour is about responsibility and not about blame.
It is accepting responsibility for my actions, thoughts and choices. Responsive behaviour is empowering, whereas reacting is crippling. When we respond, we taking charge of our lives, and do not see ourselves as victims.
So shooting the messenger is actually not very effective- messengers are there to help us understand and make better choices. Shooting them is not the solution.
In most cases we re-act without thinking, ie we act unconsciously. This reactionary behaviour often has nothing directly to do with the situation at hand but is a re–acting (re-action)of something which happened in the past.
How much better for us would it be if we were then to practice responding, rather than re-acting to situations which keep us in the past, with the pain, fear, anger associated with them. Note that if the past situations were joyous, loving, happy we would most likely not re-act.
In retrospect I realise that I had not been justified to “shoot the messenger”. Responding to the situation would have left me feeling much better, the person in question too no doubt. One of my life’s mottos is that there are no good or bad experiences in life- only our attitude makes them so. In this case the experience was useful because I managed to learn from it.
What are your thoughts on responding vs reacting? How did you feel the last time you shot a messenger?
Please leave a comment below.