Think Before You React

Reactions are important. People say and do things for a reason, and it’s usually to get a reaction. This step is deceptively simple yet difficult. Pay attention to other people and ask yourself what emotion they want to evoke. Then give it to them. Don’t take too long to reply, but being too quick isn’t advisable either. This is all to make others feel that you are present and engaged.

Think Before You React

I had been talking to a coworker for about five minutes at a networking event and I was growing wearier by the second. She seemed to think our conversation was a high-stakes poker game because her face and voice were as flat as the paisley wallpaper next to her. At times, there wasn’t even a blink to indicate she had heard what I said. I tried making a joke about how networking events were a human version of butt-sniffing that dogs engage in, and that didn’t warrant a smile either.

To exit the conversation, I told her that I needed to visit the restroom, and I’m not sure she heard that either. Reactions are extremely important in conversation.

A conversation without reactions from the other party is like a movie without background music. At first, things seem fine, but you quickly notice that it feels empty and something is missing. You feel as if you’re speaking to a wall you can’t read, and one that you’re not even sure is listening to what you are saying. You’re not sure what to feel and how to proceed, because there are no cues given.

Reactions show people that you are more than just physically present; you are emotionally and intellectually present. If you match the energy of the person you’re talking to, you’ll also make them feel like you understand them better than you actually do.

As with many things, reactions have a cumulative effect. If during a five-minute conversation, the other person does not react to one or two statements you make, you might not notice. But suppose that person doesn’t respond ten times in a row to something you’ve said? Wouldn’t you start to feel anxious, as if you’ve said the wrong thing and they are punishing you with their complete lack of reaction?

There are a few different levels to reactions that make it clear you are listening and present.

It can be something as simple as raising your eyebrow and saying, “Oh,” or even just nodding. Small acknowledgements like these should not be underrated. You don’t have to be an expert at reacting, or make a big show of it; you just need to let the other person know you’re engaged.

Even so, there are a few ways you can tune your reactions so that people feel a sense of conversational flow with you.

The first element is to make sure you react with the appropriate emotion. Imagine that you tell a story about breaking your arm, and the other person reacts with anger. Was that the reaction that you wanted (or expected) to receive?

No, you probably shared that story because it was either funny or pitiful (or both). Depending on the tone of your story, you were either looking for a laugh or sympathy or a little of both. “Wow, that really sucks,” or “Wow, that’s hilarious, but it sucks too.”

Anger as a response to your story just wouldn’t make sense. The easiest way to make sure you react appropriately to a story, statement, or question is to take a step back and ask yourself, “What is the primary emotion being shared here?” and then give that back to them!

Keep in mind that the intensity of your emotion matters as well. To use the same example, if you were to say, “Wow, I can’t imagine what I’d do in your position,” you might just be overdoing the sympathetic reaction. On the other hand, if you say, “That’s got to be inconvenient,” you’re probably not being sympathetic enough, which can make the other person feel like you’re undermining their emotions. As such, once you recognize the emotion they’re looking for, take care to also return it in equal measure as they expressed it to you.

Here’s a tip: the vast majority of emotions people share and want reciprocal, congruent reactions to are: joy, annoyance, anger, sadness, humor. Note that three out of five are negative.

For example, “Did I tell you about how this guy cut me off in traffic earlier today?!” That’s a combination of annoyance and anger.

This is something that becomes instinctual and nearly instantaneous after a little bit of practice. Just think, “What emotion do they want?” What you’re really trying to determine is what emotion they feel so you can respond in kind. When your responses accurately fit what the other person is saying (and feeling), it tells them you understand them—that you can walk a mile in their shoes. You create a lot of subconscious comfort when you react in a way that accurately corresponds to their feelings.

To reinforce such expression of understanding to the person you’re talking with, take it up a notch by also mimicking their facial expression and gestures. Psychological research has shown that mirroring, a technique that involves subtly copying the other person’s body language during an interaction, facilitates liking. So in responding to that person’s story of being cut off in traffic, make sure you not only verbally express your annoyance, but also show it in the furrowing of your brows or the twisting of your mouth to one side.

The second way to make your reactions great is to react just a little slower than you think you should. In general, a strong reaction is better than no reaction at all. If you are stone-faced and unreactive, people feel as if they are speaking to a wall.

But reacting too quickly can impart a similar frustration. The other person may feel you are just patronizing them and are not truly interested in what they have to say. Imagine a scenario where you are excited to share something about your weekend. The person you are sharing with is nodding vigorously the whole time you’re telling your story. In fact, they are almost interrupting you with their excitement. Right after you share something, they exclaim, “I know!” or “Yeah, totally! I get it!”

At some point, it becomes pretty clear that there is no way they could have processed what you said that quickly; they are just acting with fake enthusiasm because that’s what they think they should do.

Did they even hear what you said amidst all that nodding and exclaiming? Because they reacted too quickly, you assume they only listened for a few “trigger words” and were answering out of reflex or habit, not in response to your actual words.

If you react too quickly, no matter your reasons for doing so, it makes you look dismissive. It makes the person you’re speaking with feel as if you’re not truly hearing them. You can say “I get it” all you want, but the message is that you don’t get it and you’re just trying to get them to stop talking.

That’s not a great way to build mutual comfort in a conversation. When you react too quickly, it also makes people feel rushed.

If you constantly bob your head and say, “Yes, yes, yes, I get it,” they feel tremendous pressure to speak quickly and finish up what they’re saying. From their perspective, it is as if you’re saying you’re bored and already know the conclusion, so hurry it up already!

In turn, most polite people don’t want to bore you. They also don’t want you to feel as if you’re waiting too long for your turn to speak. So they’ll rush, stumble over words and likely, though perhaps unconsciously, feel annoyed.

Whatever the case, you end up creating a serious disincentive for them to freely express themselves and feel comfortable doing it. Instead, they feel they’re caught in a race and have to speak really quickly and be done with it because you are waiting for your turn to contribute.

If you have a problem with reacting too quickly or overreacting, try the two-second rule. Wait two seconds after the person is done speaking before you say anything. It makes it look as if you are processing and considering what they’ve just said. Moreover, people are likely to perceive you as smarter if you take a few moments to respond.

You say you don’t know what to do or think about during those two seconds? Well, how about what was just said and how it relates to you? And how it relates to the rest of the conversation in general? Throw on a thoughtful face, rest your hand on your chin, and people will never question your engagement again.

In summary, you don’t want to overreact, nor do you want to react too quickly.