I was leaving a friend’s office recently, and posted on the wall as I walked out the door, in large type, I saw this quote from the recovery movement: “If I am always reacting, then I am never free.” Wise words for anybody, regardless of their place in life, and for a company culture. The ability to move forward, get things done, and even, I dare say, enjoy what we are doing is shaped by our tendencies to react or respond. Freedom comes with our ability to respond, no matter the circumstance.

Reaction-living tends to perpetuate a posture of scarcity.

Reactions tend to be primal movements fueled out of the limbic system. James Smith, who specialized in Human and Organizational Development states: “There is a bit of a rift between our rational thought center (the neocortex) and our center of emotions (the limbic system). In terms of sheer psychic horsepower, the limbic system is a Boeing 767 compared to the meager single-engine neocortex Piper. While the mighty jet engines of emotionality roar, our nimble lines of logic can be perilously blown off the runway of thoughtful articulation.”

When we operate from a reactionary stance, it is likely out of that hyper–powerful emotional place. It’s what makes for good survival. To put it simply, if we lacked the ability to react, we wouldn’t make it very far as a species. But, if merely surviving is the goal, then there is never room for generative growth that moves us past surviving to flourishing. On its own, reaction-living tends to perpetuate a posture of scarcity.

reaction response

The outcomes of good responding are…beneficial for everyone involved.

In contrast, think about the term “responsibility.” It’s backed by a sense of thought-out ownership. It’s having the ability to respond, and thus by implication, generates from a more integrated place of both emotion and rational thought. The outcomes of good responding, instead of reacting, tend to be sustainable, thriving, and beneficial for everyone involved.

A practical example of these two ways of operating is seen in the emergency scenarios that make the news every day. When the bomb goes off, when the gunshots ring out, two things happen amidst the crowds. A large number react and run from the danger – survival. Then, there is the small group of people, usually professionally trained, that runs toward the danger…commonly referred to as “First Responders.” Their ability to respond to, and move toward, what others flee comes, in part, through thoughtful, thorough training that conditions them to assess the situation and decide what needs to happen next to change outcomes for the better. “First Reactors,” on the other hand, are usually nowhere in sight when trouble comes…or hindering the ability of those responding, if they remain on the scene at all.


This is an extreme example obviously, but the pattern is found in every area of our daily lives – from personal relationships and family dynamics to communities at large and corporate cultures. More often than not, unless we learn to respond differently, every curveball that comes our way has the potential to provoke a reaction that lacks big picture perspective. Even the small curveballs can blindside us if we’re not careful. They hardly seem to matter until a slew of overreactions undermine that big picture. That’s why we would be wise to heed the wisdom of this Gambian proverb: “Before one replies, one must be present.”

A good response usually comes from a place of being present.

A good response usually comes from a place of being present. This means we aren’t letting our pasts dictate how we act. It’s at the heart of the recovery movement quote on my friend’s wall. He knows he needs the reminder to be present in his place of business, as much as in his life outside the office. It’s how co-workers feel heard, instead of written off as failing to get with the program. It’s how clients know there is more to the relationship than a transaction of services.

I have had my share of moments where a reaction usurped a healthy response, and the outcome never worked in anyone’s favor. In my reactionary behavior, I always lose sight of the humanity within the person to whom I am reacting.

For a number of years, though, I have also been certified as a First Responder. My training and my experience equip me to respond when a person’s life is in danger. I don’t react to the screaming agony of an injury as much as I respond to what is causing the agony. It’s how bleeding is stopped, bones are set, and a person is moved into a place of healing or recovery.

Draw that approach into how a company operates, and it, too, will be moved toward a progressively healthier environment that promotes transformative experiences within and outside of the office walls. The route may not be easy…just ask anyone who has ever been through any kind of healing or recovery…but it is the path that leads to a thriving company culture…known for a “responsive presence” that facilitates the freedom required to uphold and sustain the essence of its true identity.

Response presence

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