Why do we react instead of respond when confronted with a difficult person?

We’ve been told dozens of times that reacting (gut-brain response) to an unpleasant person or uncomfortable situation is a sign of low self-regulation and that it most probably will lead us to an escalation of the conflict.

Yet, we keep on doing it-at least some of us do or at least sometimes. When someone is getting on your nerves, the sooner you become aware of yourself and sort of “watch” yourself in terms of your inner dialogue, the words that you are just about to say, the tone of your voice, your posture and your facial expression, the nearer you will be to responding instead of reacting.

Yes, it seems as a lot of things to be aware of in an instant.

The clue is in that same instant when you have not yet finished listening to what the other person is saying and your gut-brain is just about to take over to jump and devour the “difficult” person, to keep silent with a tight face and grinding teeth, or to slam the door and flee.

Perhaps we do not have all these extreme reactions but most probably we do stop listening, start using “unconstructive” words and sentences and make all possible efforts to blame the other for whatever happened.

When confronted with a difficult person or situation, responding is much more productive than reacting

In fact, the reasoning behind that when going from reactive to responsive, there is no need to go to the well-known fight or flight reaction, which is in fact what it is, as it’s not adaptive in a social (work) context, there is no savage beast in front of us: just a person that gets on your nerves or that has an opinion that bothers you.

Why is it so hard to restrain those first initial, seemingly involuntary thoughts, muscle contractions, tight face and feelings for attacking or defending our position?

It seems that the need to “defend” ourselves in a social situation is a survival response comparable to the one our bodies adopt when in front of life or death situations. The possibility of losing power or being socially attacked is very powerful in terms of activating a quick, involuntary and painful response. Recent research shows that uncomfortable social experiences appear to be processed by the same neural regions as the ones that deal with physical pain.

Naomi Eisenberger recently reported that experiences of social pain — the painful feelings associated with social discomfort — rely on some of the same neurobiological substrates that underlie experiences of physical pain. More concretely, Novembre, Zanon & Silani, related an experience of social exclusion with the insular cortex, traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain and which is also linked to self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal connectedness.

Therefore, when in a uncomfortable social situations or confronting a difficult person, these brain centres may activate a quick response—“gut brain survival reaction” —to a socially painful threat.

How can we be more aware about being reactive (impulsive) and turn to a responsive (more conscious) mode?

There isn’t one formula to overcome this seemingly involuntary reaction, but some suggestions can be followed to activate a more constructive social “response” produced in other neural regions of our brain related to awareness and selection of responses. Here are some suggestions. Not easy, tough: they need time and practice to be effective.

1.     Knowing and acknowledging is a first step. You know now what is going on in your brain when you react. Awareness of your functioning will lead you to some other areas of your brain to respond instead of react.

2.     Instant meditation techniques. Learning and using instant breathing and relaxation gives (neurons) time to reconsider what is best on the spot.

3.     Instant replacement of thoughts. Replace inner dialogue for more constructive judgments. Value other aspects of the person in front of you.



Naomi I. Eisenberger (2012) “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain” Psychosom Med. 74(2): 126–135.

Giovanni Novembre, Marco Zanon, & Giorgia Silani (2014) “Empathy for social exclusion involves the sensory-discriminative component of pain: a within-subject MRI study” Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci.  10(2): 153–164.

Nuria Bagés

Nuria Bagés is a trainer and consultant in communication, leadership and team coaching and she has worked in higher education and research for over 20 years. She holds a BSc, MSc and Phd in Psychology, publishes in international journals and delivered more than 60 presentations in international Congresses.

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