Why Can’t People Just Stop and Listen? “The Power in Pause”

November 25, 2020

By Dave Bushy

I remember hearing a joke about a young man on a blind date. Over dinner, he spent hours providing his date with non-stop details about his life, his thoughts and his feelings.  

At some point, though, in a rare moment of introspection, he must have recognized that perhaps he had talked too much and had not asked questions or, for that matter, even stopped to think or listen.  So, he quickly asked, “Well, that’s enough of me talking – tell me what you think of me!”

Few leaders suffer from such communication issues, but many fall into the trap of failing to take the time to listen, to be attentive and to give space, so that the other person or team members can feel themselves invited into the conversation.  

Such leaders are thus limited in their ability to be attentive to others.  In order to provide that opening, they need to stop for a moment, to allow the other person to collect their thoughts and formulate an answer.  I call it  “the power in pause.”

To some, pausing is equated to silence – but there is more to it than that.  Silence itself often terrifies us. Ever sit around the table at a meeting attempting to resolve a difficult problem? Individuals continuously come up with ideas, or excuses, or more questions.

When the conversation inevitably stops, giving everyone air to breathe and time to think, someone will often intone the famous, “It is what it is,” or something similar. While it might be meant to keep the deafening silence at bay to make everyone feel as if they are not wrapped in defeat, it can actually be disruptive and keep us from deep thought.

There is another way to look at the need for silence or “pause”.  It is the invitation for creativity and contact within ourselves and between others. The power in pause gives time for real thought: Real deep thinking. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow , in part, describes it as “System 2 Thinking”.

Attentiveness and pause opens up possibilities, allowing ideas to percolate in one’s head.  Much has been written about the power of pause, as a means of collecting one’s own thoughts.  But the power in pause is that it also invites another person into the conversation and allows their thoughts to emerge. In the process a shared reality comes into being between team members.

Try it the next time you are speaking with someone. Ask questions and then be sure to pause after you ask each one. At first, you might have to silently count to yourself.  Many clients find it helps to just disclose, “I want to give you a little space to think about what I just asked. Give yourself the freedom to think, to contemplate, to ponder.”  It becomes a process of attentiveness – of giving a part of yourself to another.

The power in pause doesn’t mean, “Go away – I’ll see you tomorrow,” because your very presence in the conversation provides the means and the protection for silence. A leader can build a safe container for an individual to be free to think before she or he speaks.

It takes some practice, but the time for thinking and the silence in which to do it are powerful tools to come up with creative solutions and ideas.

Two people talking might not hear each other. But each in turn asking questions and listening – filled with plentiful space and the power in pause – can cause meaningful connections to emerge between individuals.   And as those ideas emerge, further inquiry and deeper contact can occur.

“Tell me more,” gives permission. It gives space. And it is best followed by silence.

It works for coaches and it can work for you as you coach your own teams. 

Try the “power in pause.”

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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