To do something with intentionality means that you do it with a purpose. You don’t accidentally do it, it doesn’t just happen — you have a reason in mind for what you are doing. You know not only what you are doing, but also why you are doing it. That’s the difference between the terms in this article: a response has intentionality; a reaction does not.
Default Behavior = Reaction
We all have default phrases or actions that we use in various circumstances. These are our most common reactions. Reactions can be good in extreme circumstances, because they don’t require much (or any) thought and thus can save precious seconds. For example, if you see a car heading for you as you cross the street, you’re going to dive out of the way. You’re not going to sit there and contemplate the merits of diving left or right; you’re just going to move as fast as possible.
The challenge is to not lean on these default reactions in non-extreme circumstances, and instead to thoughtfully respond to the world around us in everyday life. Normally, you have time to think about the best course of action. Let me tell you a story to illustrate the difference between reacting and responding. This story is about when I first came to understand the distinction between these two concepts.
A Lesson Learned
A few years ago, I was checking my engine in the parking lot of my apartment complex. It was evening, and a random woman comes over and stands by my car. I’m in the corner of the parking lot, so I gave her a nod and just assumed she was waiting to be picked up. A few minutes go by, and she offers to hold my flashlight for me. I politely refuse: I’m going to be here awhile, and I’ve been holding it in my mouth. Another few minutes. She lights up a cigarette, and I’m starting to get annoyed by this woman who is now contaminating my air and loitering. I relent after a while and let her hold my flashlight for a couple of minutes. My friend stops by to pick something up, we exchange a few words, the lady is still here. I just keep working on my car, and respond to some surface level conversation. She asked, “Do you live around here?” ”Yeah, my apartment is just right there.”
Eventually she says “Can I…” and trails off as she gestures in the direction of my apartment. Confused, I ask what she said, and she says “Can I stay?” as she points toward my apartment again. At this point I have been thoroughly annoyed and convinced that she is a creeper, so my immediate reaction was “We don’t have any room. I’m sorry.” Then she turned around and left, at which point I realized she wasn’t waiting for anyone, she was just awkwardly trying to make the acquaintance of a stranger in the hopes of finding a place to stay for the night.
Now, it’s generally not advisable to just let random strangers stay over in your home. They could steal your stuff, or hurt you while you sleep. But what bothered me most was that I reacted rather than responded. I still could have helped her in some way. My first instinct was to lie and say that we had no room. Of course we had room, there was a futon bed in our living room! And even if there weren’t, the floor indoors is better than a bench outdoors. I was also upset that I apparently didn’t care enough to ask her what’s going on. ”You need a place to stay for the night? Did you get stranded, are you lost, what’s your story?” I didn’t ask any of those questions. Maybe that could have given me insight into a way that I could help, whether that means food or a phone call or getting her a taxi. All I know is that my reaction was much less helpful than a response would have been.
What I Learned About Intentionality
Whether or not you agree with my thought process, I learned that day that reactions aren’t always the best way to go. When someone asks “How are you,” don’t say “Fine.” Everyone says that. That’s a reaction, not a response. If you can start responding thoughtfully to the world around you, you will find new opportunities to grow and provide value. You will make faster progress toward your goals and people will recognize that you are the genuine article, not just a shell of a human being. So don’t react. Give a true response — that’s the hallmark of intentionality.