Keeping your cool with toxic people: The art of responding vs. reacting

responding vs. reacting: how to keep your cool with toxic people

If you have ever been around any toxic people, I would like to pose the question to you: what is the difference between responding and reacting? They both require a response right? Even though they both involve contributing to a dialogue, and aside from the fact that both words begin with the letter “r,” they are very different.

Reacting to Toxic People

Let's create a hypothetical situation that most of us has experienced: being yelled at or criticized. In the moment, our blood is boiling and we’re getting angrier by the second, so we blurt out the first hurtful thing that comes to mind without thinking of the possible consequences. This was reacting. Reacting is more impulsive and more of an automatic or maladaptive way to handle situations. While it can feel so satisfying in the moment, it's usually not as much fun in the aftermath. When we lose control over ourselves in the moment, the negative creeps in. Have you ever felt good while lashing out, but later wondered why you got so angry? Most of us have been there, but luckily we can make an effort to practice responding instead. Believe it or not, some people purposely try to trigger us into reacting negatively. Don’t let them win by remaining in control of you.

The Art of Responding

Responding, on the other hand, is saying something or acting in a way where you are mindful and remain in control. One way that I’ve practiced responding during an altercation is to take a couple seconds before I give a response. This way, I remain in control of what is coming out of my mouth and I don’t engage in a senseless argument just because the other person is trying to hurt me, intentionally or not.

Some other ways to practice responding are going to be:

  • Validating the other person’s emotions. For example, “You’re angry.” Acknowledging the other person’s feelings may make them feel heard and could possibly diffuse the situation.
  • Table the conversation once you or the other person is calm. For example, “I’d rather finish this conversation once you’ve calmed down and we can both listen to one another.” This is also a great way to establish boundaries and let the other person know you’re not engaging if they continue to speak to you that way.
  • No response at all. Cue the crickets! Sometimes the old saying is true: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. No response is a response, and sometimes this is the best thing you can do to prevent yourself from getting unnecessarily worked up.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I will warn you; the first time you try to respond and not react may feel a little off. This is because you’ve been triggered and are being mindful to not give into it, so it will feel weird. As with all things, it takes practice for responding to come naturally and to flow as you are presented with triggering situations. The more you resist reacting and choose to respond, you’ll feel so much more empowered knowing that you are in control of how you handle your emotions. It’s so empowering to determine how much energy you give to difficult people and situations. All it takes is placing one foot in front of the other.

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