Proactive and Reactive People
By Rory Aplanalp
Some things are so crystal clear to me that I don’t have any problem saying them in bold italics: It’s a lot better to be proactive than reactive. It’s better for you, for those you care about and for the people with whom you do business.
Some people look at how inefficient reactive people are and make the mistake of thinking they’re lazy. But they’re not. In fact, for the most part, reactive people I’ve met are energetic. They have to be just to carry the burdens of being reactive!
What burdens am I talking about? You could say the burdens of the past, present and future.
When it comes to the past, we’ve all made mistakes. That’s simple human reality. But, for reactive people, it isn’t so simple. They feel a gnawing sense of guilt for their misdeeds and resentment for their missed opportunities.
But proactive people don’t hold on to the failures of the past – they take responsibility for the things they have done wrong. In fact, they are remorseful when they have hurt others, since remorse means doing your best to repair the damage you’ve done. If they’ve been wronged, they have the human reactions of anger, but they manage to let go of it.
When it comes to the present, reactive people are still creating misery for themselves. You see, they complain about the things going on around them. It’s understandable – they’re unhappy! The trouble is that the habit of complaining isn’t a cure for unhappiness, it’s a cause. Complaining as a means of feeling better is about as sensible as taking arsenic to cure a stomachache.
Proactive people, on the other hand, have come to terms with the fact that circumstances will hardly ever adjust to them. They’re willing to adjust to circumstances.
And when it comes to the future, reactive people worry. With their perceptions of the past and present in mind, this should come as no surprise: Why should the part of life that’s still ahead be any cheerier than the other parts?
Proactive people aren’t immune to worrying, but they aren’t fond of it, either. Instead of worrying about future things, they implement the only effective problem-solving technique: they evaluate the problem, they make a plan and then they get into action. In other words, they change things.
I enjoy theory, but experience is usually a better teacher. A few years ago, I encountered a person who did what reactive people do best – make a bad situation worse.
I was in the Salt Lake City airport, waiting for a flight to Portland, when the ticket agent made an announcement over the loudspeaker: the flight was delayed. No one likes to hear that their flight is delayed, but I settled into my chair, resolved to keep cool.
Thirty minutes later, another announcement: the flight had been canceled, the ticket agent said with regret, then she asked us to come up to the desk to make arrangement for other flights.
The pressure inside me mounted. Now I was going to miss my dinner with the CEO of the company for which I was appearing! I might even be late for the meeting with the group! Almost in a huff, I went over to the ticket agent to complain.
But, thankfully, someone else beat me to the punch.
An obviously irate man rushed into line ahead of me and confronted the ticket agent, angrily demanding, “What do you mean exactly, that the flight has been canceled?”
The ticket agent assumed a bland, matter-of-fact expression and said, “Itmeans this flight isn’t going to take off.”
Reacting more, he grew still angrier and loudly demanded “Why?”
She calmly explained that there had been mechanical problems with the airplane. “Can’t you fix it in the air?” he shouted. I stood there amazed. I was still on the ground in Utah, but this guy had zoomed into the twilight zone. Did he really mean to go airborne in a faulty airplane? All my reactive instincts had faded as I watched the scene unfold.
The ticket agent, unfortunately, had the worst seat in the house. She was opposite the man and had to endure five solid minutes of abuse. “For what?,” I wondered as I stood there. “Has there ever been a single instance since the Wright brothers when a ticket agent could tell a pilot to take off?”
By this point, I had begun to feel guilty. Had it not been for the man’s reaction, I might have reacted just as crazily myself. He was red-faced and he looked capable of violence. Finally I interrupted politely with a tension-breaking notion.
“Sir,” I suggested, “It’s not going to do us any good to talk to her. I need to get to Portland, too. Let’s you and I go out and talk to the mechanic – that’s where it’s going to do us some good.”
But he was past rescue. He stomped off, around 10 paces, then whirled around to the agent, shouting loudly enough for the whole terminal to hear him, “I will never, ever, fly on your airline again, you got that? You’ll never see me on one of your airplanes.” Then he stomped off, miserable and angry.
The ticket agent stood there, laughing through her tears and said to me, “Gee, that would be too bad.”
The world is grateful to proactive people. Their families turn to them as pillars of strength and beacons of light. Their businesses learn their value as can-do performers, raising their positions and salaries. Their very bodies reward them with low blood pressure and a steady pulse, a full night’s sleep, and a cheerful waking in the morning. And that means they’ll be able to smell the roses for all of their days, instead of rushing to push up daisies. The bottom line is that reactive people let things happen and proactive people make things happen.
Rory Aplanalp was a keynote speaker at the Association’s Annual Meeting held in late October 2006.