Newton’s third law is, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The statement means that in every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects”; the size of the forces on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object. The keyword is “opposite.”
The statement is on the techy side, and I also get worried when somebody makes such statements. So, let us talk in the language that all of us understand. In our life, some event or the other is always happening. There are meetings and discussions galore. There are smooth and hot discussions. Many times, we react to what someone has said. Sometimes the reaction is correct, and at other times it is incorrect because of different reasons. The second case is when a person has not explained correctly, or we have misunderstood what is said. But in both cases, we should not react. We should act. In the business scenario, such things can create business issues. In personal matters, we can suffer.
In the olden days, I used to work in an Aluminum foundry. We had a large compound. It was summertime, and in the empty area, the grass had grown and become dry. In the same place, our furnace oil tank was located. I was going from a building to another building and saw a cloud of smoke, fire, and commotion. Ours was a small factory, and I realised that we were not equipped to handle such fires. Our maintenance head was trying to extinguish the fire. I told him, “We need to take outside help.” The leader said, “Have you ever fought fires?” I said no, but I did not react or argue. I ran to our telephone room and called the fire brigade. I also decided to call Tata Motors and explained to them the situation. Within ten minutes, five fire tenders arrived and extinguished the fire. Tata Motors fire brigade chap said, “Good that you called us. We avoided a disaster.” I took him to the chief and told Tata person, “We acted as per his guidance.” Tata person congratulated the maintenance head and went away. Later, when we were having tea, the boss said, “Thanks, Pramod.” I smiled. The action helped, reaction from my side would have led to disaster.
US Airways flight 1549 took off from New York’s La Guardia airport on 15th January 2009, around 3.25 pm. It had 150 people on board. Within minutes it had a bird hit. Both engines of the Airbus 320 shut down. The primary pilot Sullenberger took charge, and the copilot Skiles was trying the SOP (standard operating procedure) to restart both engines. Within minutes they realised that the engines were not going to start again. They took a call to come back to the base and declared May Day! La Guardia asked them to come back to the airport and stopped all other flights as an emergency procedure took over. But by the time the pilots knew about the situation, absorbed it, analysed and acted upon it, precious time was lost. They did not react and never got into an argument with the ATC at the airport. They worked upon the prevailing conditions and declared that they would try for Teterboro airport instead. They were given clearance for that too. Within a short space of time, they realised that even that was not possible and informed the ATC that they were going to land in the Hudson River. They did it successfully without the loss of a single life.
In this event, both ATC’s and Pilots did not react but acted. They both had different parameters available to them and kept on taking decisions on the fly without arguing with each other. Even a thirty-second argument could have resulted in a major disaster as the time was at a premium. It was a classic case of acting instead of reacting, which saved the situation!
The slide above gives step by step information about acting and reacting. US Airways flight is the classic case of two sets of people handling the same situation differently. They were both correct in their perspective of the problem. They had a specific but different set of parameters available to them at their disposal. They were communicating with each other based on these details. The pilots were the ones who were in control of things, physically. Pilots and ATC’s are trained to discuss and behave calmly in the worst of the situations. By doing so, they argue less, with no raised voices. They are giving each other updates as well as the suggestions. By acting on each other’s advice and acting instead of reacting, in many cases, disaster was avoided.
The process of sharing information with another person is critical. It should be done in such a way that the sender’s message is understood as he intended it. Unless the sender and receiver are on the same page, they have not communicated effectively.
There are some critical points to be remembered when communicating with others. It could be personal communication or formal communication.
- Do I have the facts, right?
- Is my timing, right?
- Is my attitude, right? Am I trying to help the other person?
- Are my words positive?
- Do I need to seek counsel from someone else before I try to resolve this problem?
These are essential aspects of communication. One of the reasons why the start of the second world war was a surprise to Britain was that Prime Minister Chamberlain did not understand what Hitler was communicating to him. In his smooth way, Hitler was indicating to Chamberlain that, if required, Hitler would take over Britain. Chamberlain did not act on the soft threats and reacted by telling his people, “Oh! Do not worry. Hitler is not going to do anything nasty!”
What does a reaction do? The reaction starts the stress cycle for both sides. What it does is to create a situation where avoidable discussions start. These discussions are led more by ego rather than the desire to resolve the problem. Instead of this, both must find an escape route.
Years back, during my career, I used to work in a factory. We were having a discussion, and my senior said that a process should be handled in the way he explained to me. I was quite confident that he was incorrect. I said, “Ok! Sir, I will do it the way you have suggested.” It was an overnight process. I did it the way I knew, and the results were excellent. I told my senior the results. He did not ask me what method I had used. He was happy the results were good. The action was better than the reaction!