How to move yourself and others from reflexive to reflective responding

Back to Resources

The job of a psychologist is often to move clients in psychotherapy from the reactive state to the reflective state. In a previous post “Ten ways to improve your relationship by learning to respond reflectively”, I described these two states in some detail. So I will provide here only a brief description. A good example of Reflexive (reactive) Responding occurs when we quickly and automatically pull our hand from a hot stove. Such reflex actions can be highly adaptive and protect us from injury or even death. In contrast, an example of Reflective Responding is the situation in which we grasp a very hot plate but we purposely don’t drop it because it carries our favorite food.


The reason it is useful to help clients move from reactive to reflective responding is that, only in the reflective state, can they work effectively to solve whatever problems that brought them to therapy. While the reflexive state is adaptive in cases of immediate life threatening emergencies, it is maladaptive in situations requiring delayed gratification (including enduring some discomfort) in order to attain more distant goals.

People seek psychotherapy for many reasons including depression, anxiety, codependency, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or borderline personality disorder to name a few. All of these states involve intense negative emotions which tend to activate and maintain the reflexive state. Hence these clients spend most of their mental life in the reactive state engaging in maladaptive coping strategies. They find themselves stuck repeating patterns of thinking and behaving that don’t work and in fact cause them a lot of pain.

Although the above discussion is about psychotherapy clients stuck in the reactive state, you may find that many of the people you interact with in your everyday life also seem to be stuck in the reactive state making your interaction with them difficult. Often it is your intimate mate, or a colleague you have to work with, or perhaps your boss. Or it may be you yourself who is spending too much time in the maladaptive reactive mode and not enough in adaptive (problem solving) reflective mode. Wouldn’t you like to know how to move yourself or others out of the reactive mode of thinking and behaving?

A naturalistic example: My father and the “car thief”

I remember when I was a young teenager, I saw an elderly, and probably, homeless man poking around our family car which was parked in front of our house. I imagined he was trying to steal our car and became furious. I yelled at him and even started to run towards him, expecting he would run off. Much to my shock, instead, he turned and rather menacingly stormed towards me. I became very scared and started to run back to the safety of our front porch! Fortunately at this moment, my father emerged from the front door of our house. He knew what was happening, and even though the old man was a complete stranger to him, he immediately went over, put his arm around the old man’s shoulder like they were old buddies, and simultaneously asked in a kindly way as to the old man’s health. Much to my amazement, the elderly man, whom I had imagined was about to do something real nasty to me, responded warmly to my father’s friendliness. Then my father slowly walked him off the porch onto the street where the old man calmly walked away.

My father could have reacted reflexively by getting angry at the old man like I did. But instead, by the simple actions of speaking in a friendly manner and putting his arm around the old man’s shoulder, he managed to completely change the old man’s mental state from a highly reactive one in which he was ready to do me harm to one of calm reflection in which he decided my father was a friend. He ceased chasing me and let my father lead him away. I imagine the old man also felt he could leave without any loss of face.

Even now fifty years later, I still remember this incident clearly perhaps because I was so amazed at my father’s skill in bringing about such a complete transformation in this stranger. I have never thought of this before, but I wonder if this incident may have been an important influence in my becoming a clinical psychologist. After all clinical psychologists frequently attempt to do what my father did. And here I am, all these decades later, using this incident as a wonderful real life example of changing someone from a reactive state to a reflective state.

It is important to note here that my father, among other things, had worked as a psychiatric nurse and probably had learned techniques for calming patients. In my next post, I will outline some specific strategies based on modern psychological research for moving someone from the reactive to the reflective state. The first such strategy actually consists of two parts:

  • Maintaining yourself in the reflective state.
  • Model the reflective state and hence help move the other person from the reactive state to the reflective state.

If you are interested in reading more about this topic and wish to receive an email reminder when the next article appears, why not consider subscribing to this post?

Back to Resources