Reactivity is a communication pattern that resembles the exchange of verbal blows. This communication pattern is so deeply rooted in our culture that using it not only seems inevitable, but is often justified by statements such as, “I don’t want to be a sucker,” or, “But she deserved it!”
Non-reactivity, on the other hand, is a miraculous key for creating internal serenity as well as profound and immediate transformation in any relationship.
In order to understand what non-reactivity is, we should first understand what it is not. Non-reactivity is not non-reaction, though sometimes the best reaction is not to react, and it’s not to overlook something and keep smiling while toxic resentment is building inside us.
It’s also not exactly to “count to ten,” though taking a moment before reacting might be helpful. Non-reactivity is a reaction that does not involve self-justification or an attempt to pay someone back or to hurt him or her.
Here are some common ways of reactivity:
- Finger-pointing—“You are responsible for this….” “No, you are!” “But you….” “And you….” And so on. The tones: aggressive and harsh.
- Defensiveness—Self-justification and exaggerated apologies intended to prove why I’m not to blame, why you didn’t understand me correctly, and why you have to forgive me. The tones: self-justifying and whining.
- Counterattack—Often when people feel attacked or guilty, they are quick to strike back, whether or not they did something wrong. The tones: offended and self-righteous.
- Belittling others—Reactions such as, “Calm down,” expressed in a cold and patronizing manner, are offensive reactions that are meant to make the other person feel stupid and small. When people describe an argument they’ve been involved in and say, “At least I stayed calm,” it’s not calmness they are talking about, but lack of compassion toward the other person’s feelings, and contempt toward his or her struggle to control them. Contrary to real calmness that involves no judgment, here the judgmental energy, which is felt even without words, triggers the other person’s reaction.
- Giving a cold shoulder and stonewalling are forms of reactivity that send a message without words. “I’m hurt and angry,” “You should redeem yourself,” or, “You are not important enough for me to look up from my phone.”
- Using meaningful facial expressions and body language, such as an eye-roll, which means, “Here she goes again,” tight mouth, eyebrow raise, and a head shake that means, “You can’t even do this properly.”
- And more—Door slamming (“Keep talking to the walls!”), “I’m fine” (“Keep trying to appease me”).
When we are in a reactive mood, we are not really interested in what the other person has to say or in his or her feelings. All we care about is changing a negative perception of us or fending off irritating behavior. There is no dialogue, care, or friendship. The argument can go on and on and on, and even if eventually the parties reach an understanding, the emotional residue created in the process won’t dissipate so fast.
Non-reactivity becomes possible only when we realize that our need to be right and obtain consent is keeping us away from our goals.
Using it does not mean that nothing affects our feelings anymore, but that we consciously choose how to react to our inner drama because we understand the consequences of our actions.
Regardless of how reactive the other person is, non-reactivity can turn things upside down in a way that leaves him or her puzzled and disarm him or her within seconds. Even if we have already fallen into reactivity, it’s not too late to get a hold of ourselves and transform the situation by using non-reactivity.
A non-reactive reaction will be expressed in a practical manner; in a rather neutral voice, without dramatic facial expressions and dismissive body language, and without defending ourselves or blaming the other person. Instead of dealing with the futile question, “Why?” we’ll ask the magical question, “What can we do now?”
And if an apology is needed, we’ll give up defending ourselves and making empty promises, and simply acknowledge the other person’s feelings by saying something like, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”
The miraculous power concealed in non-reactivity was revealed to me during a leadership program I attended. One of the assignments we were given was to deliver a workshop in pairs. After the workshop I’d delivered with my partner, tension was built between us, and it escalated until we no longer spoke to each other.
When, at the beginning of the next quarterly gathering of the group, we were asked to sit down in pairs to discuss the workshop we’d delivered, my partner declared in front of the whole group, “I’m not sitting with Sharon, not even for ten minutes.” Some tried to convince her that despite being right, her refusal was hurting the entire group and that it was only ten minutes—but to no avail.
Although I felt anger, shame, and a strong impulse to justify myself, I remained still and listened. Eventually, I began to hear what she was really saying (as when we are in a reactive mood we interpret everything distortedly). I realized that she was actually saying, “Sharon doesn’t love me and doesn’t want me, and I’m not willing to be rejected again.”
Only then, I reacted and said, “From my point of view it looks the same. Until yesterday I, too, felt angry with you and blamed you for the way you treated me. When you feel like it, you are welcome to talk to me.”
Later that day she gave me feedback in a group exercise, the day after, she invited me to have lunch together, and by evening we surprised the entire group when we put up a show at the talent night, even before they knew we’d made up.
It’s hard to put into words the feelings associated with that event—pride in my behavior, wonder about the sequence of events, joy, serenity, and a deep sense of connection to who I really am.
What made it possible for me to do what I had dreamed of for so long but never managed before—to avoid a harsh reaction that would later make me feel sorry—was the inner peace I have found at the time through presence practice, and the understanding that through my reactions I was the one creating the situation I often complained about—that people didn’t like me.
Since then I’m using non-reactivity frequently, and every single time I’m surprised and amazed by its effectiveness.