In my daily counseling practice, I have a mantra that I repeat over and over again.
“Respond. Don’t react.”
Being a counselor in an elementary international setting with over 1,100 students on my caseload, a lot comes my way. No matter how planned and organized I am, the day comes at me how it wants (sorry plans). This can cause stress, frustration, and what I refer to as counseling triage — what needs done NOW vs what can be put on the back burner? In times of stress or busyness, it is easy to react to a situation rather than respond.
What is the difference? A reaction is jumping into something — a conversation, a reply, an email, an interaction — based on emotion and the need to “get something done now.” A response is a well thought out reply to a situation that is student centered, solution focused, and based in rational, logical, reflective thinking. Responding is not about one person having the power but rather about mutual understanding of an issue. A response builds and keeps trust and does not demean the situation or the individual(s) involved. Responding creates win-win situations and opportunities for individuals to grow, develop, and change.
Reacting allows you to move through “issues” in a quicker manner and check more things off your to do list since you are able to say or do the first thing that comes to your mind without much intention behind it. However, reactions are typically visceral responses often based around negative emotions you might be feeling. This means that often people receiving the reaction end up with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, broken trust, and bad lingering feelings long after the interaction is over. Reactions are also quick fixes that may work for the counselor but do not necessarily lead to long term change and resolution for the other parties involved since someone is having a issue decided for them instead of making meaning him/herself. Let’s be honest … reacting is WAY more easy and WAY more natural than responding — but not the ideal interaction.
So how does one choose to respond instead of react? Anytime I am confronted with an issue — no matter formally or informally — I automatically make myself pause. In that moment of space, I ask myself, “When this interaction is over and future counselor self is reflecting on this interaction, how do I want to feel or think about how it was addressed?” Now … I know that seems like a long thought to have and it is! However, by stopping to ask myself this question I have just allowed time to think prior to responding to the issue at hand. By looking at the situation in a “back to the future” style, I think about how I will feel if I respond to the situation instead of react.
Will future counselor self feel proud of the response?
Will future counselor self feel like all parties were listened to and their voices heard?
Will future counselor self reflect that all parties involved were treated with dignity and respect?
Will future counselor self feel like she solved the problem for a student (staff member, parent, stakeholder) or will she reflect that she helped guide the individual toward his/her own resolution?
For example, say I just sat down at my desk to catch up on emails and case notes in the only 30 minutes I have free in a day. Now a staff member walks in my office wanting to consult about a student, what do I do? I might be filled with irritation that the staff member did not schedule ahead. I might be frustrated that my only half hour to complete this portion of work is now going to be filled by something else. But, I stop, pause, and think about how I want to look back on this situation. Would I like to feel like I burned a bridge by telling the staff member I am too busy to consult? Would I like to feel like I pushed aside my task to consult but then felt bitter later when I was finally catching up on emails and the other staff member had long headed home? Or would I like to feel like it was a win-win situation for both parties by stating that I am actually unavailable at this time but would be happy to meet after school, once students had left so let’s get something on the calendar?
Asking myself to reflect on the situation as if it has already happened allows me to take the initial emotional reaction that I may have to a situation and approach it in a more meaningful, productive way. Using this approach in counseling also models for students that sometimes the best way to approach situations is with a stop, think, reflect model. I can inform students that I am going to allow a few moments of silence to think about how to best respond to a situation. I inform them it is important to me to think about how future self will feel when this interaction is done. Then I can tell them this process is called responding to a situation. Just jumping in and solving it would be easy but that would be a reaction. Students pick up on the pause, think, reflect model and then can choose to apply it as situations come their way.
So, when situations come your way, stop, pause, and in that space ask yourself, “How does future self want to feel when they reflect on this interaction?” In that brief question, you have just decided to not react but respond. Easy, eh?!?