Moving From Reacting to Responding to Behaviour

Published On: 16 June 2023

A guest blog by Jack Pattinson, Senior Team Teach trainer, behaviour specialist, and inclusion advocate.

Let’s face it – things can move quickly in our workplaces, and when necessary, responding to a situation can be fast-paced, safety driven, and high intensity. Distinguishing between ‘reacting to’ and ‘responding to’ behaviour is key, even in the heat of the moment.

Reactions to some behaviour can cause conflict and, in turn, heighten risk. When we think about reactions, it’s ‘knee-jerk’, defensive, unconscious behaviours driven by a ‘fight or flight’ response, often with little conscious consideration of the long-term impact of such behaviour. We are often acting without thinking.

Instead, when responding to behaviour, we pause to take stock, consider the information around us, and think about the long-term impact of what we might do or say. The situation may remain fast-paced and of high intensity, but our response is considered.

Using empathy to respond to behaviour

When we react to behaviour, it can often be because we’re trying to seek out control, because we assume that control must lead to safety. Perhaps also the stimulus has become personal to us.

The use of empathy to detach ourselves from the situation can be useful in considering a response instead of reacting. We can ask ourselves:

  • Maybe this outburst isn’t about me at all?
  • Perhaps I was just the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time?
  • Is the reason I’m the target for this behaviour because it’s me this person trusts enough to be vulnerable with?

One of the great powers of a deliberate response is the consistency of message it supports. While our response will be unique to each situation, when they are formulated in the same way, they become easier to trust, and often safer – working to de-escalate the situation we’re responding to in the first place.

Choosing our focus when responding to behaviour

Sometimes it’s okay to tactically ignore a behaviour. This is not because we’re justifying or condoning behaviours, but because sometimes addressing one behaviour may simply create another behaviour and be detrimental to the progress achieved. When we consider the lived experiences driving the behaviours we see, we know that learnt and trusted behaviours are precisely that – trusted and safe, so new behaviours and new options take time, bravery and trust to develop.

For example, perhaps an individual tells you how you made them feel during a particular exchange in a way that feels rude or unkind to you. You may feel you need to respond, and because of the personal nature of this exchange, it might well cause you an emotional reaction. That makes considering a deliberate “what next?”, that much harder.

However, in this example, the individual’s ability to explain how they felt could be a huge step forward, if communicating their feelings had previously been an area of concern. If we react to the emotions the exchange has caused us, rather than respond, we may drive the interaction towards conflict, all while teaching the individual that, despite previous requests, expressing your feelings isn’t a safe thing to do after all.

The weight of other people’s expectations

When we are responding, there are a number of people to consider, not just ourselves. Depending on the kind of support and care we offer, this could involve other staff teams, external agencies, caregivers and families, and the general public.

Our approach towards behaviour is largely individual to us, driven by our personal experiences and the feelings caused by them. How we respond is also impacted by factors like our friends, family, and the cultures and environments that exist around us.

Managing our own responses isn’t always an easy feat, let alone managing everyone else’s. We’ve likely all encountered onlookers in public spaces, either in a professional capacity, or when out with our own family members or children. A set of glaring eyes watching our response to a difficult and potentially risky situation can feel daunting. Sometimes it feels like a viewing party waiting for us to do something – anything!

Do we need to respond to behaviour? Or does someone else think we should?

Feeling a set of onlooking eyes can drive a pressure that we must do something. It’s often the added pressure of these scenarios that can be the difference between responding and reacting. Our “what next” would be a reaction if we did something because we felt we had to, or because we were embarrassed, or out of control. Our “what next” would be a response if we did something because we felt it was the right thing to do, or because it was the best way to support the individual in our care.

We all have our own individual views and lived experiences, so it’s no surprise that our approach to situations can differ. But it can feel difficult when there isn’t a shared understanding of behaviour as communication:

  • Our response to behaviour may be described as ‘soft’ or ‘not strict enough’ by others with different viewpoints and experiences.
  • Others may think that tactically ignoring a behaviour means we endorse it.
  • We may have concerns about the perception of us and our abilities.

It never feels good to have people looking at us with judgement or concern, however, when we’re confident in the actions we’re taking because they are considered, planned, processed and deliberate, we can have valuable discussions that help to create understanding and shared and consistent practice.

Final thoughts

There are times when we do have to react to behaviour, particularly when safety is concerned. This is when our practiced scripts and responses become crucial. However, this can’t be our goal for positive behaviour support.

Reacting to behaviour may manage a situation in that moment, but it doesn’t foster long-term change. It doesn’t support the relationships we need to build with individuals that are crucial if we want to provide the best supports.

It is only by consciously responding to behaviour, consistently, and with the best interests of the individual as our focus, that we can help create new experiences that will drive the behaviours we want to encourage, and improve overall quality of life for those in our care.

The views expressed in this blog are those of Jack Pattinson and do not necessarily reflect those of the Team Teach organisation.