Each day presents opportunities to make choices about how to react or respond to a person or situation. Commuting to or from work, shooing kids out the door to get to school on time, leading a meeting, participating in a conference call, shopping at the grocery store…all of these (and many more) offer up the potential for frustration and the opportunity to demonstrate character and self-control. In addition to normal frustrations of daily life, unexpected situations arise that create chaos or require immediate action.

The quality of the action taken in these urgent situations (as well as the normal, routine challenges of life and work), matters a great deal. There are two choices: (1) to react; and (2) to respond. These actions are very different and produce very different outcomes.

React – Think nuclear reaction, which begins with a collision that starts a series of events that result in a explosion. Incredible energy is spent, which if not contained results in fall-out and irreparable damage for years to come.

Respond – Think first responder, the first medically trained person to arrive at a scene or incident. The responder must remain calm and clear-minded, quickly assess a situation, think critically, be decisive, take action, and communicate effectively.

Nuclear reactions are not called nuclear responses. Likewise, first responders are not called first reactors. Words matter.

Reacting or responding to a situation makes a big difference in human relations. Reactions are emotionally-based and almost always end in regret, apologies, and the need to repair damaged relationships, rebuild trust, or regain confidence. Responses are cognitively-based and almost always end in positive results.

In the midst of a situation, whether its something urgent or just routine, take note of which action you are choosing. Are you reacting or responding? If you are reacting, stop and ask yourself if the fallout will be worth it (most of the time it won’t be). Responding will be more effective in the immediate present and for the long run as well.