If you’re like most people, when you’re engaged in a conversation — especially one that’s about a difficult subject like mental health or racism or involves giving your loved one constructive feedback — you probably can’t wait to jump in and say what’s on your mind. The other person’s words might trigger an emotional reaction in you, prompting the next ten things you want to say, and before you know it, words fly out of your mouth before you’ve even given them consideration.
When this is how you approach conversations, you’re probably not listening to the other person very closely, and you may not be putting your best foot forward. Or worse — you might say something you’ll kick yourself for later, especially if you’re in a conflict (like in an argument) or under pressure (like in a job interview).
So what can you do to improve your communication skills in order to have more effective — and enjoyable — conversations?
You can start by making use of what I call the power of the pause.
The power of the pause — the act of slowing down and taking a deliberate pause before speaking — is simple. When it’s your turn to speak and you find your mind racing, take a moment to think before responding. You can even name it by saying, “I just want to pause for a moment and think about this.” Then take a few breaths and check in with yourself.
Taking a pause will help you to be more thoughtful in your words and to foster a better connection with the person you’re talking to. That’s the power of the pause.
Here are a few productive ways to check in with yourself during the pause that will help you communicate more effectively with others.
Consider Your Response
We all learn the hard way that you can’t unsay something you’ve said. I’ve certainly found myself blurting things out during conflict that I immediately regretted (hello, fights with my family!). But once you’ve let the words go, they float out of your reach and you can never get them back. When you invoke the pause, you’re more in control, even when you’re emotionally activated.
First reflect on what you’re responding to. You can ask yourself, “Is my immediate interpretation of this person’s words correct? Or is there more going on?” This is an aspect of mindful listening, where we consider the myriad factors that could be influencing a person’s words, including their emotions, their environment, and more.
Then you can reflect on what your gut is telling you to say. Is this something you want to say in the moment, save for later, or never say at all? What words might better serve you in the moment?
Focus on Being Authentic
In my book The Authenticity Principle, I introduce the concept of the Seven Behavioral Dimensions. The Seven Behavioral Dimensions, a range of areas where we can visibly and tangibly showcase our authenticity, are a practical way to check in with how authentic you’re being in any given moment — and three of these dimensions directly impact your conversations: the words we use when we speak, how we speak (our volume, tone of voice, and more), and the content we share.
Often, especially under stress, we’re triggered to perform, that is, to mask or hide how our authentic self wants to behave because we fear others’ judgments.
But when we take a pause, we have the power to catch ourselves in a moment of performing before we say something that doesn’t match our true selves. Then we can choose whether to be fully authentic or adaptive in what we say.
During your pause, consider whether what you’re about to say is in alignment with your Authentic Self. If how you speak or the content you share is one of your “must-do” areas for being authentic, this will be an especially important check-in for you.
Pay Attention to What Your Body is Saying
Our emotions greatly influence what’s happening in the body, and we can use these bodily sensations as a guidepost for how we’re feeling in any given moment.
When you pause, tune in to your body and ask yourself what it’s telling you about your emotions. Is your stomach in a knot? Are your shoulders up by your ears? Are you taking short, shallow breaths in your upper chest? Is your heart racing? These signs, and others, will tell when your body is in fight, flight, or freeze — if it is, you’re likely to be emotionally reactive to your situation.
Fortunately, when you catch yourself in this state using mindfulness, you can bring yourself back down to a grounded state and have a more thoughtfully considered response. Taking a few deep belly breaths is a good way to calm your body, gain control of your mind, and mindfully consider what to say.
Sometimes we know what we want to say back to someone, but we’re afraid to say it.
This can happen in many situations — for example, if you want to share your opinion at work, but suffer from self-limiting beliefs that cause you to self-censor. Or if you want to share your true feelings with your partner, but deep down you fear that you don’t deserve to have your needs met.
When you catch yourself in these moments, ask yourself what it is you’re afraid of. Then you can use your pause to self-coach in the form of positive affirmations. Tell yourself encouraging words like, “You can do this! You’ve worked here for two years, you have good ideas, and you’re worthy of sharing them.” Or “My feelings are valid, and I deserve to feel heard in this moment.”
If you plan your words of affirmation in advance, even better. They’ll be ready for you in difficult situations.
Practicing the Pause
Like all forms of mindfulness, the more often you practice the pause, the better you’ll get at using it to improve how you communicate with others. In turn, you’ll improve your confidence with communicating in any situation and boost how you feel about yourself.
So the next time you’re in a heated situation — whether it’s a job interview, a team meeting, an argument, or an emotionally charged conversation — use the power of the pause to guide you.
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