The 5-second rule: pause before responding

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I heard a talk yesterday by a psychiatry professor about how there are two types of people:

  • The “smart” people, who come up with lots of ideas and will share it the minute it shows up in their head, regardless of whether that idea is relevant or appropriate to share at that time
  • The “wise” people, who tend to stop to think before saying something

This got me thinking.  I used to be quite the hothead.  I’ve calmed down these days, but I still have lapses.  How do I suppress my “smart” tendency and score higher on the “wise” scale?

Turns out the answer for me was in these two article from Harvard Business Publishing: “The martial art of difficult conversations” and “Undo send in real life“.  The key takeaway for a good outcome in a confrontational situation: take a sloooow breath, pause, then respond.  This will result in a rational, not emotional response.  This works because the emotional response in the brain is instantaneous, but the rational response takes a few more seconds to kick in.  A 5 second pause will do the trick.

Now if a 5 second pause is helpful, isn’t a longer pause even more helpful? What if you wrote down your response, read it first, then decide whether you will say that out loud? Somebody suggested the latter to me once.  I tried it, and it didn’t work for me because you lose control of the dynamics of the conversation.

The trick is to remember to take that breath slooooowly when the next confrontational situation comes up.  Time to practice!


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