In our work with leaders at all levels in all types of organizations, one of the most frequent questions we get is how to handle difficult conversations with colleagues, bosses and direct reports. No surprise, right? Everyday business is packed with opportunities for disagreement, challenge and confrontation — all of which can produce dread, discomfort and sometimes a sick little feeling in the stomach. In an effort to navigate our emotions, we may often unconsciously engage in undesirable behavior such as avoidance, submission or dominance.
This is hardly the best way to get the best out of ourselves, or the best out of situations. It is certainly a recipe for disaster in our desire to collaborate and innovate.
We teach several techniques and principles for mastering difficult conversations, and the simplest among these is what we call hitting the “Pause Button.” Hitting the Pause Button is simply creating a bit of space and time — a pause in the action — in which to find a more productive and peaceful resolution. Pausing is a way to release tension. It is a way to give yourself and the other person a chance to breathe, to reflect, and to regain composure. It is a chance for one or both of you to connect with the positive possibilities that are present in the dialog, rather than being driven by quick judgements, instincts or emotions.
Why is this valuable? Psychological studies show that when we are stricken by upsetting emotions or when we react using instinct alone, we are often prey to limiting thoughts: “He just doesn’t get it!”, “This will never work!”, “Why do they never listen to me?”. These limiting thoughts, if we act upon them, lead to speech or behavior that we may regret later. In fact, in our executive coaching activities, one of the most common challenges coachees cite is their reactivity – their impulsive response to high-pressure situations. Hitting the Pause Button helps you clear your inner space so you can operate again from a place of wisdom. This is at the core of our Personal Leadership method — to learn to approach your highest potential in all moments of life and leadership.
Hitting the Pause Button:
Remember Mom’s adage of counting to 10? She was right. Simply slow down your response. Take a breath — or two, or three. Count if it helps. Wait before responding, or don’t respond at all, which gives the other party in the conversation a chance to hear what they said, clarify further, or perhaps even pull back from a heated exchange.
Ask for time. Try: “I need some time to think about this. Can we talk about it after our next meeting?”, “Can we revisit this tomorrow morning when I have more room to consider what you’re saying?”, “This is really important to me; let’s schedule some time to consider it carefully.”
Go for a walk. This technique, a favorite of Steve Jobs, is simply one of changing location and physical orientation. Suggest a walk outside, or say “Hey, do you want to get a cup of coffee?” Sometimes a simple physical change, the act of getting up and moving, can shift the entire feel of the situation.
Redirection. Years after Abraham Lincoln’s death a number of letters written but never sent were discovered among his things. These 18th Century equivalents of flame mails were letters Lincoln wrote to let off steam, addressed to Generals with whom he had conflict or disagreement; letters written and never sent. Today? Try writing that email, but instead of sending it to the person you’re in conflict with, send it to yourself. Look at it tomorrow. Read it as a recipient, not sender. More times than not, you’ll never send that email.
These are just a few of the many ways available to create pause in life and leadership, creating a little bit of space for reflection, consideration, kindness and wisdom. At the core of each technique is a bit of retraining — teaching ourselves that we don’t have to respond instantaneously, and sometimes it’s best not to respond at all. Giving a bit of time and space to ourselves and others can fuel collaboration, build trust and strengthen teams. It can create durable and rewarding work relationships, perhaps even friendships.
Try hitting the Pause Button now and then. Reschedule. Get up. Grab a cup of coffee. Or go for a walk. The situation — just like the show on your streaming TV feed — will be there when you get back. We promise.
A provocative question to consider: Is it possible to hit someone else’s Pause Button? We’d love to hear your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.