Human Animals Pause

Ronald Heifetz, JFK School of Government at Harvard.

Heifetz would drive people crazy, when…

He would p-a-u-s-e






1…..2…..3 seconds. You could almost hear the students’ collective unconscious crying out, “for God’s sakes, man, teach!”

I’m speaking of Ronald Heifetz, the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, whose content and unorthodox style of teaching awakened me – and thousands in the decades since – to the study of leadership. As I reflect back, I think Heifetz’s pause was driven by his mixed motives. I’d guess 10% flowed from his just being new to teaching; 50% was the result of his training as a psychiatrist who thrives upon creating and utilizing silence; and 40% was an intentional teaching device.

Heifetz’s device let us catch up mentally to what he was saying – as well as to our own racing minds. And perhaps most important, the disquieting quiet let us see:

  • How passive and dependent we were as students-followers
  • How much we wanted him to do the work – be the expert, tell us the truth, resolve all tensions, and
  • Increasingly, over the course of the semester, how we aspiring leaders could use his painful pauses as moments to get to what he would call “the balcony,” where we could observe and question in real-time what was happening, i.e., exactly what is leadership…now?

Now, you and I are in a major societal – even global – PAUSE.  A splendid chance to observe. Here is what I’m seeing.  The animal parts of our brains (amygdala and limbic systems) work lightning fast. Make a loud clap behind someone’s head, or lunge at someone, and you’ll see this speedy animal brain at work. But this part of the brain also is adapted to defend not just our bodies but our psychological bodies, which we might call our “identities.” So, what happens when someone assails your identity?  What if you hear someone say something about “your” people, like “you know those [Jews, Catholics, millennials, Blacks, Liberals, Feminists, accountants, lawyers…]. What happens? Your ears perk up, your blood pressure ticks up, and your basic defense mechanisms will light up like a Christmas tree. Say, “Trump,” in a crowded theater and the whole place will go on alert. “Is the speaker friend or foe?”

One no less an observer of humans, Victor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz and three other concentration camps, wrote what I take to be the most insightful statement about human awareness and human growth that has ever been written: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” One must slow.  Pause.  To create awareness. Then choice.

I believe that 95% of the hurt I have done to myself (in a car, on a court, in response to a sibling, spouse, or child) and to others would have been avoided if I had practiced the pause, created that “space between stimulus and response.”  

One thing that is helping me, is I am growing a foundation of thought which realizes that although I often feel a sense of urgency, there is almost NEVER a practical basis for it. That old limbic brain acts like everything is urgent all the time. So, like a knee struck by the doctor’s mallet, I react, rather than pause and respond.  I feel as if I must prove myself, defend myself, accomplish, be great – answer that email, write that column, respond to that push-back, defend myself before I even know what my “attacker” means.

I believe it was Tara Brach whose words I transcribed a couple weeks ago:   “The sense of urgency seems to act like oil on the fire of a needful ego. And in turn the needful ego is ever-mindful of urgency/emergency appearing. It’s a bad limbic cycling.” The pause is the way to stop the cycling!

Is the rush – back to school, back to games, back to full employment – really necessary? Will a child really “lose a year” for example, as I keep reading over and over again? If a parent misses a call, will the business really have to either fire them or go into bankruptcy? The urgencies are seldom real, and whether they are or aren’t, they mess with the best parts of our brain and body; we go into fight/flight, tensing and constricting, and just not thinking well.

The best way to pause is to pause.  Breathe in for 3 counts. Hold for 3 counts. Exhale for 6 counts. It’s not a great strategy if a leopard or a semi is “bearing” down on you, but how often in your entire life has that happened?

You won’t just help yourself with that breath, you’ll

Lead with your best self.  

  • Another great blog to make me think, Dan.
    The folks you teach are just SO lucky to have you.
    But just wondering if, when you mention the doctor’s ballet hitting the knee if you really meant mallet…
    Make it a great week!

    • Jim,
      Thanks for the kind words. I know I’m lucky to have my students 🙂
      And thanks for the catch on my mis-spelling. Interesting and pretty fruitless to imagine hitting a knee with a ballet, isn’t it?

  • I think this is one of your best articles yet and could not agree with you more. Thank you for this awesome reminder.

  • Brilliant as always . And to the point , pause is what is needed right now . Thanks for pointing out so well .

  • One of your best columns, Dan. Thanks. It reminds me of Steve Covey’s admonition to “first, seek to understand.”

  • Dan, the pause is so powerful. In fact, I paused before responding to you on that email we discussed. I was literally about to do what you said – knee jerk respond – and instead reflected on it (probably a little too much), but I think waiting a little too long was better than responding right away. The pause served me (us) well.

    I’m not sure people are “rushing” back to some of the things you describe. We did in fact, societally, pause like never before in the 10,000 year history of civilized man (some would say for better, some would say for worse). To use your breathing example, you didn’t say breathe in indefinitely… or count to 1,000 then breathe out… you set a time to it – a reasonable time. That’s what people expected. They also expected that when they breathed out they wouldn’t be told next time to hold their breathe longer (or that there would be a next time).

    I think you dismiss too easily the exigencies that people in fact face. People who aren’t in academia or government work. They in fact do have bills to pay. Payrolls to cover. Insurance premiums. Those can’t be waved away with a wand because the people counting on those bill payments, that paycheck, those premiums in turn have their own bills to pay, and so on. So for many people, while a pause is nice, there is an existential aspect to it.

    As you know, there’s also a sense to “rush” back because the rationale for what is happening is so irrational… to many people, including nobel laureates far smarter than I am at our university, So the idea ending the pause to many people is a way to control their own sanity.

    Thanks as always for sharing a thought provoking piece.

  • Dan,
    Although I am reading this a few weeks after it was published I feel as if the words were given to me as advice for the events of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Taking a moment to pause and let words sink in is effective regardless of who is talking. In your class I learned about ending one’s sentences with an assured tone, not a questioning one. This seems to take that confidence one step further.
    Thank you for this, it’s a great reminder that we often have more control than we allow ourselves to wield.

    • Thanks, Andres. I love the connection you have made between the confidence to make a point and the corollary confidence to be able to HEAR a point. Very cool. D.

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