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A woman having a frustrating conversation on the phone in her home office.

How to Respond Instead of React in Communication

Has someone ever said something to you, and your feelings were so hurt that you lashed out before you knew what was happening?

Or has someone said something thoughtless or careless, and you’ve been left stewing in your anger or upset for several days (or even weeks or months) before finally feeling able to raise the issue?

This is something that happens to all of us, whether frequently or infrequently, whether we are the one being hurt or the one - often unintentionally - doing the hurting.

The Importance of Feelings

Some people may accuse you of being oversensitive or overreacting if you display intense or extreme emotion when your feelings are hurt.

However, this is an unfair assumption.

Feelings matter.

This is a world of emotion, and we are a species filled with feelings. Everything we do boils down to our emotions. We get involved with people because of how we feel. We have desires, dreams, and ambitions because of how they make us feel (or how we think they’ll make us feel). We react to things based on how we feel. Emotions and humankind cannot be separated.

So how can it be fair to disregard wounded feelings when feelings themselves are such a fundamental part of us?

Hurtful words are just one way of damaging emotions. The idea that one should bury their feelings or disregard them if they are hurt is unproductive and destructive in the long-term.

Feelings ought to be respected. It can be especially challenging for people who are very sensitive to hear hurtful words, whether intentional or not. Highly sensitive people are almost always extremely mindful of their own words because they know first-hand how hurtful words can be.

However, as sensitive as we may be, it is within our own power to respond rather than react.

Make sure to check out: Feel It All: Why All Emotions Are Good Emotions

Learning to Respond Instead of React

Responding in a way that does not involve an immediate, visceral reaction is something that everyone can do.

Whether you are having a bad day, or a subject is particularly sensitive with you, or you are in a negative place mentally, or you are sensitive in general, there are ways to respond that can help diffuse a situation rather than inflame it.

Remember one important thing: your feelings are nothing to be ashamed of, and there is nothing “wrong” with them.

When feelings get hurt, it is a sign of your capacity to feel. This is a powerful and beautiful thing. It is never pleasant to experience hurt feelings, but what you choose to do with those feelings is up to you. You can react in a way that generates greater friction and tension or transforms the emotion into something positive.

Below are some ways you can respond rather than react during a conversation.

1. Count to 10 & Step Outside of Yourself

It may seem relatively simple, but this method of responding instead of reacting can be very useful.

A hurtful word can slice like a dagger; the reaction is instantaneous. But when you choose to pause and reflect, you take control of the emotion that surges through you, and your rational mind intervenes.

Ask yourself these questions before reacting:

  • Did the person intentionally mean to hurt you?
  • Why do you feel so hurt?
  • How can you communicate to this person how you feel in a way that will benefit you both in the future?

Let’s say that you’re wearing a new dress and you ask your friend how it looks. Your friend replies with a, “It makes your arms look a bit big!” Your immediate reaction may be one of hurt and anger, and you may respond either with a cold shoulder or a harsh word.

But ask yourself: this is your friend. Does he or she mean to hurt you, or are they just saying what they honestly think?

Why do you feel so hurt? If you feel confident in yourself, does it matter if your arms look a certain way to someone else?

How can you tell your friend you feel hurt by their comment? You could sit them down and tell them calmly that their comment hurt your feelings. It’s likely your friend will be mortified and might be more tactful with their words in the future.

Either way, taking about 10 seconds to think before reacting can allow you to rationalize your feeling so that you can turn them into something productive. A hurt feeling is a sign that there is something within you that requires addressing.

You might also be interested in: Strategies for Self-Validation

2. Walk Away & Engage in Positive Activity

Sometimes, people will say hurtful things simply out of spite. This is prominent online and on social media, where some people believe that being behind a screen gives them a license to be as nasty as possible.

We see influential figures and celebrities, in particular, being victimized and attacked viciously on the internet. Still, all of us are subjected to negative energy directed towards us online at some point or another.

Whether online or off, words that are intended to hurt can be very damaging.

Walking away from it does not mean you behave in a cowardly manner or allow them to get away with it. It means that you are not willing to accept the negativity that others are throwing at you. People who are deliberately nasty in this way are trying to find an outlet to release their own hurt and anger.

There is a famous saying by the Buddha which epitomizes this:

“If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”

Anger can be likened to a rather unpleasant gift.

Someone will try to give it to you, but whether you accept it or not is up to you. If you walk away from it, you return it to them and refuse to accept the negative energy. At this point, engaging in an enjoyable activity for yourself that raises your positivity levels, such as creating artwork, treating yourself to something nice, pampering yourself, or curling up with your favorite book, can be great ways to keep you feeling emotionally balanced.

3. Practice Mindfulness & Empathy

Mindfulness is taking time to pause and reflect and to become aware of everything in your present moment. Sometimes, stopping and finding the stillness enables us to see things from another perspective.

Emotions are intense things, and it is easy to become caught up in them.

While it can be tempting to bury emotions or pretend they aren’t there when they are raging through you, this can present problems further down the line because the emotion is not being addressed.

If your feelings have been hurt, take time to practice mindfulness.

Become still and be aware. Be aware of the emotion running through you. Take time to understand it. The emotion is not there to hurt you but to help you understand yourself better. Understanding your emotions is key to controlling them and ultimately integrating them within yourself; the more you understand them, the more inclined you will respond rather than react.

By the same token, practicing empathy regularly is very useful in helping you manage your feelings.

Putting yourself in the shoes of another and seeing things from their perspective can help you understand why they say the things they say. Someone may be going through their own pain and unconsciously or consciously be inflicting it on others; others may come across as tactless but have no real malice towards you, and it may devastate them if they knew just how much their words hurt you.

Remember that empathy is key to compassion, and compassion ultimately dissolves all forms of negativity; it is the height of love and one of the most extraordinary powers we possess.

Next Time, Respond!

Humans are complex creatures, and it is what defines us from our friends in the animal kingdom.

We are made up of so many feelings, emotions, thoughts, dreams, desires, needs, and wants that most of us are simply navigating through our emotional waters at times without a clue of what we are doing.

Patience, practice, and a desire to have an innate understanding of ourselves can help us steer these waters with greater ease. So the next time someone says something hurtful to us - or when we say something hurtful to someone else - it is important to look at ourselves first.

Negativity breeds negativity; at our best, we can take a negative word or action and transform it into something positive. This is the power of responding rather than reacting, and it is something we all have the ability to do!

Related article: The 4 Different Types of Stress & How to Manage Them

Sarah Brownlee

Sarah Brownlee

Having worked as a teacher, a bartender, and even a private investigator, writing was something Sarah Brownlee just fell into, even though it had been her passion since she was a little girl. To date, she has written and published 3 Children and Young Adult fiction novels, ghostwritten for others, and... Read More

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