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The Power of a Pause

In a surprising number of circumstances, an extra moment can yield real benefit.

Key points

  • Pausing for a moment after your conversation partner finishes an utterance can yield surprising benefits.
  • A momentary pause can be helpful when flirting, negotiating, writing, and giving talks.
  • A two-second pause may be particularly beneficial after someone has just insulted you.
OpenClipArt, FreeSVG, Public Domain
Source: OpenClipArt, FreeSVG, Public Domain

Taking an extra moment—so easy, so transient. How much difference could it make?

Well, taking just an extra second can often make quite a difference in many situations:

Before responding

Even if you don’t need extra time to think, allowing a one-second pause before responding shows respect for the speaker: It conveys that you weren't impatiently waiting for the person to finish so you could spout your pearls. Rather, you were listening, perhaps reflecting. A side benefit: If you pause for a moment, you’re not going to interrupt, which only rarely is wise. If you need more than a second or two, no problem. The speaker will probably appreciate your asking, “May I have another moment to think about that?”

Of course, the one-second pause is of value in nearly all conversations but because this is Psychology Today, it's worth mentioning that a pause can be particularly valuable if you’re a helping professional or their client.

When you're insulted

It’s especially tempting to jump in and fire back when you’ve been attacked. Actually, that’s a particularly good time for a two-second pause: Take a breath, look the person in the eye, and reflect. Do you want to remain silent? That could make the person feel self-conscious about having insulted you, explain further, or maybe even apologize. And no matter what, you’ve bought yourself a little time to get past any reflexive tendency to be defensive and fire back, which usually doesn’t help matters. Then, with the silence having made the other person feel a little uncomfortable, if you decide to respond, she or he may have become more open to your now more measured response.

When you're interviewing someone

Whether you’re a police interrogator, podcast interviewer, or said helping professional, after you’ve asked a question and there’s silence after a response, resist any temptation to jump in to fill it. The other person also is probably uncomfortable with the silence and may well fill it with something important, even with something they mightn’t otherwise have disclosed.

When flirting

Looking at a person for a second or two may well be perceived as flirtation. And as in the previous examples, in conversation, remaining silent and looking the person in the eye after she or he has finished saying something is not only flirtatious but shows that you’re calm and confident, something that most people find attractive.

In negotiation

You’ll probably never earn a higher hourly rate than from staying silent for a moment after someone has made you an offer. The discomfort created by the silence occasionally makes the person feel self-conscious about the offer’s inadequacy. If so, without your saying a word, instead of risking defensiveness if you objected, you could get a better offer. I’ve had clients get thousands of dollars extra for those few seconds of silence! Helluva payoff.

If a negotiation has gotten tense, a few-second or longer pause provides a moment for each of you to calm down and reset.

Between bites

You get more pleasure per calorie by taking an extra moment between bites. That said, I must admit that for me, this is, as they now say, not a problem but “an area for growth.”

In writing or giving a talk

In non-fiction, whether in writing or verbally, you want to avoid being too dense with ideas, it’s usually wise to insert a pause—an example, statistic, humor, or anecdote—before making another point. That’s especially true if the content is difficult or dry.

In well-paced fiction, between plot advancements, it’s wise to insert a pause: a bit of setting, characterization. backstory, or something to muse on. Novelist Louise Penny is a master of this, for example, seamlessly inserting an eminent’s quote as a pause. See, for example, her novel, A Grand Reckoning.

The takeaway

It's easy to assume that taking a pause is easy. After all, you don’t need to do much more than breathe and maybe think. But especially if by nature, you're more impulsive than reflective, taking even a one-second pause can be far from easy.

You may well need to make the effort to make it a habit. How? Try writing the word “pause” on your palm so you see it all the time. Also, remind yourself of the benefit of pausing just as you enter one of the aforementioned situations. It is worth the effort.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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