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July 17, 2023

“Between the stimulus and response, there’s a space,”  wrote philosopher Victor Frankl. “And in that space lies the power to choose. In our choice lies our freedom and our growth.” 

When we move quickly, we’re not responding — we’re reacting. By making it a practice to pause in that space between stimulus and response — by hitting the pause button and saying nothing while we take time to think about what we’ve just heard — we develop the ability to respond rather than react. The benefits to our primary relationships — to all our relationships — are considerable: 

Improved comprehension: Pausing allows us to process and better understand what we just heard our partner say. Research has shown that people who take a moment to reflect before responding tend to have better comprehension of complex or ambiguous messages compared to those who respond immediately. 

Improved quality of our response: Pausing allows us to gather our thoughts, consider different perspectives, and prepare more thoughtful responses. This can lead to improved communication and better outcomes. In contrast, quick reactions may be impulsive, less accurate, or based on incomplete information. 

Emotion regulation: Pausing rather than reacting allows us to take a step back, calm ourselves, and think more objectively about the situation. This can prevent the sort of impulsive or emotionally-driven responses that we often later regret. 

Reduced misunderstandings and conflicts: Quick reactions often stem from misinterpretation or jumping to conclusions. In the pause, we might realize there’s something we don’t understand, or there’s more information we’d like to receive, and so we can ask questions that might lead us to smarter responses. 

Empathy and empathic listening: Pausing slows us down long enough to consider responding first with empathic listening (“I hear you’re feeling X…”) so that our partner can feel truly seen and heard by us (see Empathy Advantage). But even when we’re having trouble zeroing in accurately on our partner’s emotion, research has found that it makes a tremendous difference when our partner sees us trying to understand what they’re feeling (see Empathic Effort). This goes a long way toward promoting good will.  

By pausing in the space between the stimulus (what we’ve just heard or observed) and our response (what we say or do), we can shape more positive outcomes in conversations, and in the relationship overall.  It’s a powerful tool, that pause button.