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The Power of a Pause

When Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India, I always wondered what could be the reason behind the pauses he took while speaking. Sometimes I thought it was because of his old age, and sometimes people even made fun of him for this habit, but I was always amused by the wisdom of his words – not just his political speeches, but his writings and poems in particular. If we take a pause and think for a moment, we can all recall such people who take longer than usual while speaking or answering questions. In today’s fast paced world, I believe such people can teach us some valuable lessons.

Our Quest for Survival

Human beings are hard-wired for survival, and that is the reason we are the most evolved species on the planet. Our brains constantly listen for signals from our senses (sight, sound, touch) and acts immediately if it senses any danger or threat to our physical well-being. Similarly, our mind always listens from external events, giving us a running commentary as life unfolds around us. When we are conversing, our mind tells us what to speak next or it makes a judgement about the speaker or the spoken. It is the mind’s job to make sure we don’t look bad (or stupid), and it decides (for us) what to do next to save us from (perceived) threats to our social well-being.

Our Ability to Intervene & Take a Pause

If there is one thing which separates us from other living beings, it is our ability to stop this cycle of action and reaction, and to take a pause before deciding how to respond. Most of the times, both action and reaction are simultaneous, with no pause between them. An example could be our spouse asking the same question every morning and we replying with the same response without even blinking. The same happens at work when we talk to our boss or our colleagues.

A small pause before we start to speak or answer can do wonders to a conversation. Most of the times when we are not talking, we are actually waiting to talk. Sometimes the person on the other side has a lot more to say but is hesitant and so he stopped. By taking a pause after he has stopped speaking, and maybe using words like hmm… uh.. ok.. but not jumping in with our views, we can let the other person complete whatever he has in his mind. We can even ask follow up questions like – “Do you have anything else to add?” before beginning to speak ourselves.

Simple and powerful words by Mark Twain

Simple and powerful words by Mark Twain

In my conversations where I have been aware to take a pause, I have noticed that speaking up after letting the other person finish leads to more fruitful conversations and both parties are left satisfied. This satisfaction is of being heard, and of being understood. What’s more strange is that sometimes I don’t even have to speak up, and the conversation automatically leads to where I wanted it to go by just listening. As people are listened to, they let their rigidity of stance soften and consider your view point even without your asking for it. Such is the power of taking a pause and listening.

Responsibility = Our Ability to Respond

We live in a world today where we want everyone to be responsible. We want our children, our political leaders, our colleagues, our managers, our neighbours to all be responsible. “Responsibility” is an over-used word in our media driven society, but I believe being responsible is first and foremost our ability to respond consciously. It can make a huge difference in our lives if we can train ourselves to take a pause often and act not from our mind’s fears and judgements, but from our values, priorities and goals.

Taking a pause will force us to think about what is really important to us, and it can have a profound impact on our work and lives. Pausing creates space for ourselves and others to express themselves fully. It creates positive energy instead of building tension and enables us to handle tough situations in a more mature way.

I want to end with a simple request – to take a pause and think about this article, rather than just believing the commentary your mind has provided you as you were reading it.

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