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The Power of Pause: Mastering the Median Point

Being considerate in how you gauge and careful in how you engage.

Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

While we readily guard against outside threats and enemies, the most dangerous risk tends to be a more insidious foe: our own poor behavior.

People may remember what you said or what you did, or they may not. But the one absolute you can always rely on is this: They will never forget the way you made them feel.

How often in life do we wish that we had not gone charging off to start or finish something that might have been better served had we just stayed our hand and waited that tiny bit longer?

We lose more than we think when we speak during moments that we should have kept silent or hold back when we ought to have stepped forward.

Our crazy, information-distracted lives move us at such a pace that our minds and hearts urge us to keep up and ride every wave—to be quick, decisive, and immediate in our life choices.

In the end, that speed is often of our own making. It is in our power to decide the pace of our actions. Were we to create a pause between an event and its outcome, we might find the result we create to be materially different.

Many of us suffer from what I call a "tilting mindset." We perpetually work to balance ourselves within the best perspective and attempt to be the smartest, most capable versions of ourselves at all times. We often seem to assume that we need to know the answer right there and then as if the best solutions are hurtling and must be caught before they fall. It’s an approach that often leads to disappointment, especially in the workplace.

Workplaces, of course, are neither chapels nor care centers where people can take refuge from the demands of daily life. In fact, our workplaces are often the opposite; though most would prefer not to think about it, many of us have suffered from situational depression because of our careers. During these periods of stress and burnout, work becomes a place we wish we could avoid—an environment that, despite our employers’ best intentions, can be fraught with potential emotional hazards and toxic co-working relationships.

The workplace is not a center for socializing, but the place for providing services and earning profits. Sometimes, despite being surrounded by co-workers, you can still feel lonely. Often, the feeling occurs because the people around you don’t seem to see or listen to you, even though you are right in front of them.

When mistakes happen at work or in life, they do so because people leap into a task before lifting their heads above their immediate wants. Put another way: Would you rush across a busy street before stopping to look both ways?

You need to pause, to check in with others before you start charging forward on your own agenda. This brief moment of contemplation is massively important if you have the privilege and responsibility of leading others; however, doing so can also benefit those in the lower reaches of the authority pecking order, too.

Don’t underestimate the power of first checking in on people before you take action. Unless you are sure that you have someone else’s proper attention, you will not get the best from them. While I'm not suggesting that everyone should try and become a counselor for those around them, checking in is a wise, generous, and beneficial behavior for leaders.

Never, ever assume. I profoundly believe in this. I learned that lesson many years ago, in the very worst possible way.

Years ago, I was working with a highly gifted consultant for whom I had high expectations. Then, all of a sudden, he went off the radar. I was indignant and outraged; emails and mobile phones were not around then, so I had few means to reach him remotely.

Finally, I got the man to the table. The instant he walked through the door, I was in his face, demanding to know why he had abandoned his work and castigating him for his lack of professionalism. I was certain, I remonstrated, that despite my earlier impressions of him, he was not up to the task.

He remained silent, looking down at his papers.

"I am sorry," came the quiet reply. “I have let you down. You are right; I have not given this the attention it deserves. I know I have not been at my professional best."

"Why? Why?" I carelessly insisted, my voice rising. There was a moment of silence, and I realized too late that something was seriously amiss, well beyond the dislocated assignment.

A heavy silence fell.

Suddenly I was filled with uncertainty; I began to wilt within, realizing that something terrible was about to fall.

The man met my gaze, his intelligent eyes swimming. After a moment, he looked down to allow me my dignity and whispered, "Two weeks ago, we lost our little boy, Jack. He drowned."

I will never forget that moment, or the wrenching guilt I felt in those that followed. A few years later, the man and his wife and their two living children attended my wedding; and while my friend has long forgiven me, my shame, 30 years on, remains.

But looking back, I can’t help but wonder how much more sensitively that encounter might have gone if I had taken a single moment to think and to gauge the situation.

The first time I saw the real power of pause was as a young man sitting in a challenging product-planning session. We were all lost and terribly afraid of our uncertainty being found out. Of course, the Senior Director chose that moment to enter the room. Internally, we all hoped that he wouldn’t ask us about our (lack of) progress.

"I know what we need to do!" He barked, his mustache dancing wildly. We looked at him warily, waiting for the tirade to start. But then, he clapped his hands, the sound decisive and startling.

"Well, don’t you see?" he remonstrated in his most authoritative voice as if he were addressing the very board itself. "This is the perfect moment for a nice cup of tea."

"A cup of tea?" we chorused, confused.

"Yes, a bloody good cup of old British," he confirmed merrily, “At least we know how to do that, don’t we? No point all you nonplussed bees buzzing up against the window." He turned to leave the room, beckoning with one hand as he did.

Off we went to the canteen, laughing and relieved at a simple, yet powerful, act of pause.

We worked into the night and finished the assignment.

Years later, I sat down to reminisce with the same director. When I brought up the Great Tea Break, as it was thereafter known, he smiled ruefully.

"Yes," he said, "That sure was a moment, and the truth was that I did not have a clue either. Scared I was, just like the rest of you. Thank God for tea!" he chuckled.

Were we but to pause, we might just as soon realize that relying on a first glance is dangerous and limiting. Stepping back for a moment may yield more options and more in-depth perspectives.

When we try to impress with our quick minds and decisiveness, we trip over our tongues and prove that we are just plain cognitive misers, unable to see the facts that lie below the surface of our perceptions. Reality and truth are made of many nuances; the scope of our perspectives limits our conclusions. For example, we might incorrectly assume the orbits around the planets are round, instead of their actual elliptical path.

Excellence through thoughtful action, such is the might of just pausing.

We live multifaceted lives. We are many people and hold countless roles; the intensity of the changes often make us feel tired and smothered. There are so many distractions, demands, and promises to keep; we face a great deal of communication, but minimal conversation, real relevance, or absorption.

We hear, but we do not listen. We talk at but do not converse with. We see, but we do not observe. We deliver thinking without due thought.

Too often, we nod away, ignoring the point of conversation in favor of shaping a winning reply.

So many issues in life and business come down to this: When fact and truth are carelessly bundled together, they can form robust assumptions that can be flawed and dangerous. The reason for this? We are careless in how we gauge and engage.

Some of the finest conversationalists actually speak very little. They are superb at authentic communication; they remain mindful of the other person’s time and state of being by listening generously and speaking with care. They never seek to dominate, postulate, or eviscerate. Unlike others, they understand that the magic often comes when they talk with their mouths closed, and their hearts and minds wide open.

Consider This:

  • Pause. Take a moment to consider the truth behind your preconceived notions.
  • Facts and truth are not always the same thing. Timely, authentic contradictions can be a powerful stop-loss tool.
  • Cognitive misers can be very bright but often lack in-depth insights. Get out of your own way.
  • Wise men wait to hear what others first have to say. Exceptional conversationalists speak sparingly.
  • Never underestimate the resolve or determination of a quiet person.
  • The world is full of people suffering from foot-in-mouth disease. Take a moment to pause before you respond.

Sometimes we can move mountains with just the kindness of a smile or create a moment of importance by the powerful virtue of a simple pause.