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5 Best Ways to Pause in Communication

Man seen through window talking with his hands in a light office space

By John Millen

While working with a group of leaders in Washington DC, I gave a woman and a man the same advice, but for different reasons:

–– He was talking endlessly, even after he made his key points. He talked so much, it made people tired of listening to him.

–– She was making great points and was very concise. But she sped through her comments breathlessly. It was hard to listen to her words because you felt like you wanted to breathe for her.

While I gave each of them deep advice on their individual presentations, on one point I gave the same tip: please use pauses during your talk.

Common problem

This is a common problem for many of my clients. Most of us fear pausing while communicating with others. That's because a pause of three seconds in front of a room full of staring eyes can feel like three hours.

It's a truism that when preparing for an important presentation, meeting or conversation, most of us focus on what we’re going to say. Few of us plan for a pause — the intentional space when we will stop “saying” and, simply, wait.

This is critical because what you don't say can be as important, or more important, than what you say.

Art of the Pause 

This is the art of the pause.

Artists, graphic designers, and interior designers call this “negative space.” That’s the space that is not filled in a painting, for instance, that gives emphasis to the person or object that is the focal point.

Songwriters, too, use a rest — a beat or two of silence — to draw in the listener and to create a sense of anticipation for what comes next.

The same is true in your communication: when you strategically pause you give emphasis to what you do say.

Effective listening

I’ve stressed the importance of listening and pauses are a critical underpinning of effective listening. If you’re purposely pausing, you’re either giving others the chance to fully understand what you said, or you’re giving them the opportunity to speak so that you can listen to them.

I know this advice runs counter to your instincts. When you’re nervous, you often don’t want to stop talking. You’re thinking, “Let’s get this over so I can sit down and breathe again.” Any pause can be frightening. It can seem like an eternity.

The trouble is, we have a natural tendency to want to fill the gap — to keep talking.

Human Instinct

Over the years, I've done a lot of executive media training and I warn leaders about reporters using this human instinct to lure people into giving answers they normally wouldn’t dream of saying.

I warn them, when doing a media interview, to avoid giving in to the temptation of filling in the gap when they finish answering a reporter’s question.

It goes like this: a reporter will ask you a question, you answer it, and the reporter remains quiet, looking at you.

Most people will think, “maybe I didn’t give the right answer, maybe she expects me to say more,” and they’ll keep talking. In fact, many people will start to modify their answers to find something acceptable to the reporter.

This gives power to the reporter and usually ends badly for the executives when they inevitably go way off of their planned messages.

Instead, I have the executive smile and ask the reporter, “Do you have any other questions?” The reporter usually will give a knowing smile and move on.

You may never do a media interview, but you’ll face similar opportunities to pause for more effective communication. I want to raise your awareness of the importance of creating space in your communication.

You’ll start to notice other situations where a pause might help. Here are five tips for using pauses effectively in varying circumstances:

1. Pause in your presentations  

In your presentations and meetings, think about how you can strategically place pauses in your talks. For instance, to stress the importance of something, make sure to pause. That might seem obvious, but few of us actually put it into play. 

Pausing at an important point lets people soak up the meaning of what you said. If you’re a fast speaker you should also pause. Stop and take a breath to give people the chance to catch up with you.

Your material might also dictate the need for pauses. Too many speakers, particularly in technical fields, will force-feed their audiences with way too much data.

The best policy is to carefully limit your data to the most important information and make sure to pause intermittently to ensure your audience understands what you’re saying.

2. Create space in crucial conversations

When you have these heavy talks, maybe when you have to give bad news, it’s important to create space in the conversation. Give the person an opportunity to react and give feedback.  Help them to comprehend the gravity of your words.

Of course, pauses are extremely useful in everyday conversations. When you want someone to open up, it’s your job to create the space for them to hear you and respond or share themselves.

3. Let the buyer fill the vacuum

The best salespeople know that you need to make your strongest pitch, ask for the sale, and then be quiet. Let your buyer fill the vacuum. These closers also avoid the rookie mistake of continuing to talk after the person has said “yes.”

In business and in life, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling! It's like a permanent pause.

4. Pause in your storytelling

One of my favorite places to use a pause is while telling a story. As human beings we are hardwired to pay close attention to stories. Our instincts tell us a story might contain valuable lessons for our survival.

That's why I'll build in pauses while telling stories. It reestablishes engagement and science tells us our brains get a hit of dopamine when the tension is released.

5. Practice the art of the pause everywhere

You should look for pauses in communication all around you: Are you pausing appropriately?

Watch how people around you operate: Do they pause, or rattle on forever? Consider conversations where you might benefit from creating space.

You’ll be an artist. You’ll be practicing the art of the pause.

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John Millen

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