Keep cool: Being reactive only escalates problems

There is indeed a very short list of moments in time wherein it’s good to be reactive:

If your house catches fire. If your dog, your spouse, or you catch fire. When you’re halfway home from Chuck E. Cheese’s, and your spouse says, “Where’s the baby?” When Pat Robertson decides to say anything at all about human suffering. When your platoon leader shouts, “Incoming!” When you’re sitting around a campfire and somebody suggests the group sing “Kum Bay Yah.” When your date admits that he has a prison record, and tags the story with: “Personally, I didn’t think two merited the moniker ‘serial killer.’ “

Yes. Sometimes we have to react.

But, mostly, being reactive isn’t very helpful. People often aren’t the best of themselves when they are reacting.

Consider a great warrior. When the tribe is ambushed by hostile forces, the warrior reacts to the ambush, yes. But the counterattack is no reaction. He doesn’t tear into the forest, raging and shooting arrows in random directions. Nope. He calms himself. He bridles his anger, and contains for the time being his grief. He finds a mercenary focus. And then he acts.

As opposed to dashing off a crazed, angry e-mail and then actually sending it.

Revenge is a reaction. Justice is an action. Peace is a proaction.

Lately, I spend a lot of time with couples and parents, encouraging people to stop reacting. Reactivity is a bad habit in important relationships.

Stressed couples or couples in crisis often find that they are helpless to even anticipate, let alone stop incendiary spirals of reactive conflict. One moment things seem fine. Then, without warning, the conversation becomes a chain reaction of splitting atoms. KABOOM!

Exhausted and demoralized, the couple stands shell-shocked. Was it me who just spoke so vilely to the man/woman whom I love and cherish? How did that happen?

Reactivity is a bad interpersonal habit. That’s how it happened.

Think of reactivity as having undisciplined emotions. Emotions that can instantaneously cause you to stop thinking. And if you can’t think you can’t act. You can only react.

I teach couples to treat reactive conflict like you would a stage play rehearsal. Somebody must recognize the emerging, reactive hurricane for just what it is, and then yell, “Cut!” Everybody freezes. The director says, “Ten minute break, and then let’s come back and discuss this scene.”

Because, if the couple can take time out to breathe, feel, settle down, then they can think. And if they can think, then they can discuss what went wrong in the scene. And if they can talk about it, then, glory be, they can rewrite the scene!

Attention, parents! Reacting to infants and toddlers makes you ridiculous. The task is to proact. To stay several steps ahead.

Attention, parents of adolescents! Your teenage children lovelovelove to make you reactive. And they are experts at the task. The slow, contemptuous amble toward the chores. The contemptuous rolling eyes and the contemptuous “tick” noise they make popping their tongue off their palate. (The “contempt thing” is a theme, see.) The passive-aggressive forgetting. The glaze-eyed “Huh?” The DEFCON 1 crisis announced at about 10:30 p.m.: “I don’t have my assignment for tomorrow!”

And parents react. They beg. Plead. Implore. Describe how important it is to get an education. Make a midnight run to Wal-Mart and bail the youngster out. Or they shout. Scream. Curse. Foam at the mouth. Say, well, reactive things such as, “You’re grounded for a month!”

Game, set, match — teenager.

And, of course, sometimes reactive parents hit.

A few years ago, my teenage son stuck his head out on the back porch, and made his entitled demand: “Pop, you gotta take me to the mall!” ‘Twas a time that I might have reacted. Raised my voice in indignation. Scolded him. Lectured him.

But, this time I didn’t even look up from the magazine I was reading. “Boy, first off, I don’t gotta do anything.” I turned the page, contemptuously, for dramatic effect. (Yuk-yuk.) “And, for the record, when was the last time you got something you wanted from me by talking to me that way?”

He heaved a sigh and tromped off. Came back 10 minutes later and asked politely. I said I’d be happy to take him.

Guess I didn’t tell you about the little fringe benefit of learning not to be reactive. I confess I do derive some wee pleasure in tormenting my antagonists.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at

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