Waiting

Discusses the benefits of the non-behavior called waiting in a number of psychological domains and situations. How to apply the principle of waiting in responding to a crying child; How waiting helps bring out the creative side of a person; Significance of waiting in love and relationships.

By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published September 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I JUST RETURNED FROM GIVING LECTURES IN Japan, where I was reminded how muchmy behavior is constrained by cultural practices. In the U.S. we rush through everything, even our conversations. A gap in a conversation makes the skin crawl; we feel compelled to fill it immediately, even if we can think of only something trivial to say, like what happened last night on the Seinfeld rerun or the Survivor show.

In Japan, a gap in a conversation is no big deal. The Japanese even claim to be able to "communicate in silence." Imagine sitting with a friend in a restaurant, occasionally locking eyes, occasionally looking away, never saying a word, but somehow sharing thoughts and feelings. Sounds eerie, yes? But that's because our culture forbids the practice. Face it, we sometimes can't shut up long enough to eat.

The non-behavior called "waiting" can have enormous benefits in a number of domains. Weight Watchers teaches, for example, that waiting in between spoonfuls lowers calorie consumption. Classroom studies have shown that superior teachers wait a while before answering their own questions; if a teacher routinely fails to wait for answers, students soon learn not to bother to try to provide them.

For decades parents and professionals have argued about how to respond to a crying child. Soothing the child might reinforce crying, we're told, but ignoring the child might increase the child's distress. The solution is to use a technique I call "waiting for a pause." Wait for a brief gap in the crying and then soothe, saying "Sweetie, I love it when you calm down. How can I help you?" That way you're providing love and support, but you're also teaching the rudiments of self-control.

In my laboratory research, I've learned about the enormous benefits waiting has for creativity. When people are struggling to solve a problem, the more time they have, the more creative they become. Even long periods of inactivity are eventually followed by breakthroughs. The main challenge is to teach people to relax while "nothing" seems to be happening.

Waiting is especially important in the dance of love, where we're all too often inclined to step on toes. We want immediate results: love at first sight, chemistry on the first date or at least a feeling of "rightness" by the second. A bad month or even a bad week is often enough to kill a marriage; we've lost the art of waiting a few years until things get better, which they almost inevitably do. While it's overly optimistic to believe that waiting brings "all things," failing to wait costs us dearly.

Robert Epstein, Ph.D., is editor in chief of Psychology Today, University Research Professor at Alliant International University and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.