C-Suite Network

Do You Respond or React?

A little while ago, a German PhD student and I were discussing the dynamics of working in international or multicultural settings, when he asked me, “What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone who was going to work in [that kind of environment]?”

It was a powerful question, since it’s hard to distill the 1,001 ideas that swirled through my head down to one single line item.

Finally, I said, “No matter what happens, don’t react.”

He looked at me, surprised. “So, if someone says or does something that you don’t like, you should just do nothing?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” I replied. “You can respond; just don’t react.”

“What’s the difference?” he asked.

I went on to explain that a reaction is an instinctive reflex, often influenced by your “fight or flight” tendencies, whereas a response is a conscious decision.

A critical skill that separates bosses from true leaders is the ability to catch yourself when the reflex to react kicks in, and hit the pause button. Then assess the situation from what I like to call a “split-brain perspective” before deciding your course of action. Depending on the situation and your natural tendencies, you may be able to do this quickly, or you may need to take some time to think it through, and return to continue the discussion an hour or a day later.

Either way, the process requires three equally important steps.

Step 1: Acknowledge your feelings

The first step is on the “emotional side” of your brain – the one whose reaction is to be annoyed, offended or off-put by what the other person said or did. Start by identifying what you’re feeling and why. For example, you can say to yourself, “Whenever he asks for something, it always sounds like a command. It sounds like he thinks he’s my boss, and it really gets under my skin.”

Especially in intercultural encounters (but not unusual in any context), it’s common to perceive others as being rude or otherwise feel like their comments are insensitive or inappropriate. Here’s the thing: it is okay to feel this way. You don’t have to deny your feelings; just don’t let them drive you or your reaction. Acknowledge them, and then go to step-two.

Step 2: Seek alternative explanations

This is when the “logical side” of your brain needs to take over, giving the person the benefit of the doubt that there is a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation for what they did or said, and that their intention was not to offend you. Your job is to discover their real reason and intent.

Now, you can remind yourself, “He probably doesn’t realize how that came across. Let’s find out what he meant and go from there.”

You never know what might be under the surface. For example, in Russian, it is perfectly professional to say “do this now,” whereas in English it sounds extremely demanding, “bossy” and abrasive. The problem is that even though the person may be “fluent” in English, they could still be thinking in Russian and translating word for word into English, not realizing that while their statement is technically, grammatically correct, it is contextually inappropriate.

On the flip side, while it’s considered appropriate in English to say, “Can you get X to me by the end of the day? I can’t do my part until I have X from you and the deadline is tomorrow,” in Russian, such a statement sounds timid and wishy-washy. As a result, it might not have occurred to the person to frame it this way, subconsciously assuming it would be inappropriate.

Once you’ve had that quick check-in with yourself to regroup, move on to step-three.

Step 3: Respond thoughtfully

This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Considering everything from steps one and two, you need to formulate your response to the person in a way that isn’t defensive (or offensive, for that matter), and shows that you want to reach a mutual understanding.

Whether you address the issue immediately or at a later time, perhaps when you can have the conversation in private, start by calmly and objectively identifying the comment/behavior. E.g., “I just want to clarify what’s probably a misunderstanding. Earlier, you told me to (XYZ), and the other day you said (ABC). I’m happy to help, but when you say it like that, it feels like you’re giving me orders. I don’t think you did it intentionally, so I wanted to ask you to clarify what you meant.”

At that point the person will have the chance to share their perspective and even apologize if necessary. They might be surprised or embarrassed, and this approach helps them to set the record straight, turning the exchange into a learning experience for both of you. In the end, you get clarity, strengthen your relationship, and allow them to rebuild their reputation with you and others moving forward.

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