11/11/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Do You React or Respond?

I just finished reading the book I Am Malala. It is the story of a young girl who was shot in the face by the Taliban for speaking out for the education of girls. While her story of survival after the shooting is nothing short of heartbreaking and miraculous, it is her thinking before the shooting that is truly inspirational and offers us all a great life lesson.

Death threats were frequently made to her and her family for several years. First the threats were subtle and quiet, and then in the year prior to the shooting they became more overt and frequent. At the age of only 14 years old, Malala began to rehearse how she would keep herself safe and what she would do if confronted with a terrorist.

I'd imagine that on my way home a terrorist might jump out and shoot me on those steps. I wondered what I would do. Maybe I'd take off my shoe and hit him, but then I'd think if I did that there would be no difference between me and a terrorist. It would be better to plead, "OK, shoot me, but first listen to me. What you are doing is wrong. I'm not against you personally, I just want every girl to go to school -- including your daughter. Now do with me what you want.

Her reasoning and insight is profound as it speaks directly to the distinction between reacting and responding. Her young life is marked by the purest definition of living a life of responding to pain, insults, and threats rather than reacting. She is the true definition of somebody living an authentic life.

Reacting to situations, events and comments from others is certainly easier than responding. A reaction is purely emotional and protective and only requires the most primitive area of the brain to be activated. The more advanced areas of the brain are not activated or required when we react. All mammals have the capacity to be reactive.

In a reaction, we have an emotional response (anger, fear, humiliation) and our words and actions tend to follow. Conflict or tension often moves us into a defensive posture. We react by mirroring what is being said or done to us. When we feel insulted, we react with an insult. When we feel marginalized, we react by marginalizing others. When we feel threatened or insecure, we tend to react by threatening or demeaning those who have put us down. It's easy.

Conversely, a response requires a more cognitive and authentic perspective. It involves a higher, more advanced level of thinking and reasoning that is consistent with our beliefs and values. When we respond we tend to come from a place of integrity, remaining whole and true to ourselves. Responding is a conscious and deliberate act. It is about suspending judgment and preconceived notions in an attempt to understand and strategize solutions particularly around conflict.

As we approach this holiday season, perhaps a conscious effort to shift our style of reacting to responding could reduce the typical family battles. Imagine not reacting to your mother-in-laws usual insults or Uncle Joe's political views. Imagine what could happen if you were able to suspend your preconceived expectations and feelings and respond in a more proactive, cognitive approach that is consistent with who you are and not who they are. Imagine what it would feel like to maintain your integrity and image of yourself as opposed to behaving and becoming the image others have of you.

So, for this holiday season give yourself the gift of control, dignity and integrity. Practice responding rather than reacting -- no matter how many times your mother-in-law comments on the turkey. Wishing you a holiday season filled with joy and a life filled with authentic moments.