5 Modes of Interacting

I’m fascinated by how we all learn how to be with each other. I’ve spent a good portion of the past few years reading books on psychology, neurology, self-development, behavioral economics, sociology, and philosophy. I’ve also been taking classes, doing a lot of coaching, and learning interpersonal meditation.

Through all of this, I’ve developed an understanding of what I call the “5 Modes of Interacting.” These are not “stages” because it’s not a progression from one mode to another. Also, as you’ll see, different situations can send us into different modes.

In Reactive Mode, we receive an external stimulus and react immediately, without thought. We wear our emotions on our sleeves and lack any kind any kind of social filter. We are all like this when we are babies, feeling cold and immediately crying, seeing sunlight and laughing without inhibition. As adults, we can drop into Reactive Mode when we are in a state of reduced cognitive ability, such as when we are hungry, exhausted, stressed, furious, or drunk.

We are in Responsive Mode when we have a sense of self and of social norms, but are still greatly affected by external stimuli. We know what is expected of us and have established our own personalities, filtering our actions and thoughts through these as we make our way through the world. How we express ourselves about things like taking a new job, seeing a sad movie, or having our home team win the big game depends both on our feelings and on our sense of who we are and how we want to be perceived. Even as we are being ourselves, we may still be Responding, meaning we are primarily motivated by the situations presented to us externally.

For many people, there comes a point when we start to question who we are and why we are here. This is the Reflective Mode. In Reflective, we examine ourselves internally, questioning the truth of how we have been behaving, what we believe, and whether or not we agree with what the world has been expecting of us. We encounter external stimulus and don’t react right away, taking time to pause and consider what we really want. We start to develop a more long-term vision for our lives. We may even start to question our personality and whether or not it is fixed or if it could be changed. This is often the time when we seek out help in the form of mentors, therapy, or spiritual guidance. While reflection happens often to varying degrees, being deep in Reflective Mode is often triggered by major life events such as the birth of a child, the death of someone close to us, graduation, an accident, terminal illness, or new love. In the popular mindset the extreme form of this is often referred to as a crisis of some kind, such as a “mid-life crisis,” a “crisis of conscience,” a “post-college slump,” a “Saturn return,” or some other term for radical-break-from-what-has-been. We may sell everything and travel the world, do a walkabout, hole up in a remote cabin, or take some other extreme action to “get away and find ourselves.” There are also less extreme ways of being in Reflective Mode, such as meditation, prayer, hiking, or another way of setting aside time for contemplation without abandoning everything.

I believe that most people live the vast majority of their lives in a combination of Responsive and Reactive. It can feel like a luxury to take time for the Reflective Mode, and sometimes that time feels justified only when we start to feel acute strain or pain from living our lives primarily in response to what we are offered.

When we have a good sense of who we are and why we are here, we are able to live a Realized Life, to be in the Realized Mode. This can come directly out of being in Reflective Mode. We have a vision for our lives, often one that goes beyond ourselves. In this mode we know what we want to offer to the world and we start creating a life that fulfills the soul. We may give up everything we were doing before Reflection, or we may just have a shift in our mindset, our approach to everyday life, finding ourselves filled with renewed wonder and joy without making any external changes. Instead of primarily reacting to external situations, we are internally motivated, creating and generating what we send out into the world. We touch this whenever we experience a state of flow, being fully absorbed in the task at hand, feeling inspired, and forgetting time. In a fully Realized state, we are engaged with external situations but they do not change our sense of who we are. This means that even if we change our actions in response to another’s request, we do so only in alignment with our internal compass, never leaving the path to our life’s vision. There’s plenty of room for play, but there’s little chance of forgetting.

Once we know who we are and how we want to be in the world, we are able to fully Relate with another person, to interact and share while maintaining that sense of self. When two people are Relating while both are in Realized Mode, they are fully themselves at the same time that they are with each other. Anything that they decide to do together will support each person’s vision for their lives. They are authentic, open, honest, and true. They operate from a  place of curiosity, ready to discover the other person in every moment. They leave the interaction feeling even more alive.

While our understanding of each Mode builds on the foundation of the previous one, the Modes are not linear, nor is “progression” through them fixed. All kinds of triggers can send us from one mode to another. For example:

  • Encountering something (or someone) new is often a trigger for dropping into Reactive or Responsive mode
  • Extreme states of emotion (fear, anger, giddiness, grief) inhibit our ability to be Reflective
  • When one person is in a Realized state, they may drop out of it when encountering a Responsive person – or they may help move someone Responsive into a state of Reflection
  • Two people may be Relating, but then one or the other may find themselves unable to hold their sense of self in the face of the situation
  • Without taking the time to be Reflective, it is difficult if not impossible to develop and sustain the Realized Mode
  • It is possible to get stuck in Reflective Mode, unable to take action and live a Realized life
  • A person can be in different Modes in different circumstances, e.g., Realized in their career, but Responsive in romantic relationships

These 5 Modes are useful as tools for understanding and discussing how we are interacting with the world. They are not fixed, just as we are not static beings. I find them particularly useful for understanding why I feel more myself or not in certain situations, what it is that is solid or lacking in my ability to be in the world the way that I would like to be. I also find them inspirational in terms of why I am doing all this reading and this work, helping me focus on what I want to do next.

I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on the 5 Modes. Do they make sense to you? What do they make you think of?

Cianna P. Stewart is Founder of the No Complaining Project and a resilience coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also spends a lot of time producing events and dancing. Connect with Cianna on Google+.


  1. Andrew

    Thank you for showing up so beautifully Cianna. I have not even read the whole post but am resonating very powerfully with it and what you have shared.

    I am very excited to have found your blog and look forward to engaging with you on here.

    Yours, and love

    Andrew (Shasta ’11)

  2. cianna

    Thank you, Andrew! I love that you’re resonating with it. You do such great work. I look forward to hearing how you use the 5 Modes!

  3. suzy p

    Really, really love this. It all totally lands for me. It seems to me these are powerful distinctions… even just the moment-by-moment awareness of, say, “Oh, I’m stressed, I’m in reactive mode now” can bring with it a pause and a choice in behavior…. maybe even the conscious choice to shift modes. And I found it interesting that you note you can get stuck in “reflective mode”… I sheepishly note that’s been my mode in a lot of categories for a couple years now, and I’m just shifting out of it and seeking a more realized mode overall. And that shift has been a bit painful, like a birthing, and something about this post helps me understand that and accept it, like it makes sense more to me. Thanks for articulating this so clearly!

  4. cianna

    Thanks, Suzy! I love how hearing how it fits for you. And yeah – I recognized that “getting stuck in reflective” in my own behavior! I got stuck in a phase of reading a lot and applying very little. I’m really happy to hear that this makes it easier to understand and to give birth to your realized self!

  5. Joui

    This whole article makes a lot of sense to me, and how you organized it. And…
    For some reason, I would like to see you talk about this….it feels very ‘audioable’ (if that’s a word) and then using more of your personal stories behind how you have used or traversed through the different modes.
    And, where you have struggled and what are the benefits of your stuggle (to say arrive at reflective or related mode). I love how articulate you are about the subject and I want more Cianna juice!

  6. Renee

    Thank you, Cianna. This model gives me a little more nuance, specifically for the reactive and relating modes. I had been couching my reactive experiences as ‘shut down,’ but this is more gentle and spacious. With a frame like this, I feel more openness to participate rather than closing up. Whew. And then bring myself more into a relating mode. Love, Renee (T3)

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