Difference between Reactive and Responsive

“I get a pit in my stomach before I enter my office each day,” Steve, a colleague of mine confided, “wondering what emergencies are going to hit me before I even sit down at my desk.”

Sound familiar?

Every professional in the legal, tax and financial world experiences similar feelings. On my drive to work I mentally review the litany of tasks I intend to conquer that day, only to be derailed within minutes (if not seconds) of entering the back door to my office.

Certainly this is a good problem to have. I’d rather deal with a dozen immediate problems than have none at all, wondering when my next client will walk through our front door. Nevertheless, I find it frustrating to fall behind schedule, failing to fulfill the promises I made, which could result in harm to my practice.

Reacting Drains Energy

Putting out fires shouldn’t be the norm. Constantly reacting to situations drains your and your team’s energy. It’s much better to respond to issues than it is to react.

You might wonder, “Aren’t ‘respond’ and ‘react’ synonyms?”

No, not in this context—to respond is an intentional act that requires planning and forethought, while reacting is more of a triage-type action, where you might get something accomplished simply to “stop the bleeding.”

Life happens. No one controls the day-to-day situations we encounter. We only control our responses. To that end, intentionality governs the success of any outcome. By intentionality I’m referring to a thought process which hopefully becomes second-nature to you. The more you exercise this specific mind-muscle the greater difference you find between responding and reacting.

Emergencies Don’t Always Require an Immediate Solution

When reflecting on how you respond to situations rather than react, first realize that most “emergencies” don’t require an immediate reaction. While formulating an immediate solution feels necessary because your client, or perhaps a fellow team member, stresses the matter’s urgency, consider that there may be several alternatives available. Reacting quickly may actually compound the problem, making it more difficult to solve.

During a recent estate administration, for example, a client insisted on rolling over her deceased spouse’s IRA immediately.  She was much younger than her husband and not the mother of his children. Her fear of his children challenging the estate plan caused her to engage in a panicked call to his financial advisor, demanding that he immediately assist her with the IRA rollover. Because of her sense of urgency, he did so.

This was before I was able to point out that she was younger than age 59½, which meant, of course, that she could not easily withdraw amounts from her husband’s IRA without a 10% excise tax penalty imposed on every withdrawal in addition to the income tax liability that she would incur. Had she provided her advisors the time to respond to her concerns rather than react, or had her advisor taken the time to respond rather than react, we could have suggested that she leave her deceased husband’s IRA as an inherited IRA until such time as she attained the age necessary to make withdrawals penalty free, thereby legally dodging the excise tax.

Responding Is More Intentional

By taking a step back and carefully assessing the situation, you are more likely to formulate a response that includes a course of action. Ifind that when approaching any situation, being intentional almost always results in a better outcome.

Achieving intentionality is possible any number of ways. When I’m really on my game, I write out the problem on a sheet of paper, along with the potential solutions, including the advantages and disadvantages to each.

The next step is to share your thoughts with whoever brought the crisis du jour to your attention and solicit their ideas. I find that collaborative efforts are usually better received and therefore successfully implemented.

Systematizing the Solution

Once resolved, I suggest adding an additional step before moving onto the next crisis. If the current issue is likely to somehow arise again, it’s usually worth the time to consider systematizing the agreed-upon solution to head off similar crises.

As a leader in your organization, it isn’t necessarily your job to determine the steps to implement when systematizing a process to stave off similar problems. Delegate that to a competent team member, asking them to take whatever steps and hold whatever meetings necessary.

By systematizing a solution, you and your team act with greater intentionality. You are now proactive rather than reactive. The next time that this issue arises, the foundation is in place to properly respond rather than improperly reacting.

Working on Your Practice Rather Than in Your Practice

You’ll note that the steps you take after solving the initial problem constitutes working on your practice as opposed to working in your practice. Too often legal, tax and financial professionals leap from file to file, crisis to crisis, out of the frying pan and into the fryer. They don’t take the time to work on their practice.

When you work on your practice you take time to think. While you might not actively generate revenue while doing so, you set the stage to optimize your team’s performance, which leads to greater client satisfaction and profits.


Don’t underestimate the power of a good coaching program. I prefer coaching programs that involve collaboration with others, who can add their own life experiences enhancing the experience. I’ve been involved in a coaching program for nearly 13 years, and conduct one of my own that’s based upon the systems and processes that I’ve developed over the years for my own practice.

I believe that the best coaching programs are conducted outside your office. I travel to Chicago quarterly, for example. This means that I leave my Fort Myers, Florida office the day before and often don’t return until the day after the coaching session. Leaving my office for a minimum of three days every quarter gives me the opportunity to reflect on the past 90 days, strategize, plan and recharge for the next 90 days. I become more intentional by ten-fold and consequently so do my team members.

Making a Commitment

As you can readily determine from this short column, becoming responsive rather than reactive requires a great deal of intentional thinking and forethought. Setting yourself and your practice up to consistently systematize solutions so that fires become less common and, when they do occur, to be better dealt with is well worth the time and effort. But it will only happen if you commit to spending the time and resources necessary to do so.

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