Wolfhall, the miniseries, currently airing on PBS’s Masterpiece, provides wonderful examples of a principle you’ve heard me advocate before—when you aren’t sure what to say, push the pause button and don’t communicate till you do know what, if anything, you want to say.

Although Wolfhall is set in the court of Henry VIII of England, the main character is Thomas Cromwell. I have no idea how the real Thomas Cromwell communicated, and for present purposes, I don’t care. Rather, I focus on the way the actor Mark Rylance portrays Cromwell.

Son of a lowly blacksmith, Cromwell rose to become the right-hand of Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Woolsey. When Woolsey fell from favor, Cromwell (as portrayed by Rylance) not only remained true to Woolsey, but also managed to plead his case with Henry, yet without offending the King. Indeed, after Woolsey died, Henry took Cromwell into his own service.

In Wolfhall, Cromwell has to walk several political tight ropes all at once. For example, when Henry was seeking a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell found Anne’s sister Mary, now one of Anne’s ladies in waiting, willing to gossip to him about her sister. Mary becomes an important source of information about a woman who can influence Cromwell’s political career, even his life. On this tight rope, he must show empathy for Mary and appreciation for the tips she gives him, without the slightest hint of any negative thought or feeling for Anne.

In a wonderful scene, Cromwell walks this rope assisted by his use of the pause button, thinking before speaking. But Rylance’s facial expressions are what makes his pregnant pauses so masterful. Not only does he avoid communicating with words during these pregnant pauses, he also avoids communicative facial expressions—with a few powerful exceptions.

Some exceptional things are safe, even beneficial, to communicate during a deliberate pause, for example, “I get you. I understand what you’re saying, and I’m thinking about it.”

Mary tells Cromwell, “If you’re waiting for her, I should warn you she’s in a temper.” Cromwell pauses, then, slightly dropping his eyelids, nods, and softly answers, “Ah ha.” You must actually view and hear the scene to appreciate his subtle movements and tone of voice, the way they let Mary know that he’s taking in significant information from her, but without any suggestion of criticism for Anne. I can’t adequately convey them in writing.

As the scene proceeds, Mary comes on to Cromwell, tearfully telling him how she has become an object of contempt, even to her family, because she was formerly Henry’s mistress. She wants a husband to restore her respectability. After a pause, Cromwell says, “Well, you should ask for someone young and handsome. Don’t ask, don’t get.”

“No, what I want is a husband who upsets them. And who won’t die.”

Cromwell pauses a very long time, while looking at Mary with an expression that only says, “I’m thinking.” No judgement.

She moves closer and places her hand on his chest, looking deep into his eyes. “Don’t ask, don’t get.”

Again he pauses, thinking.

At long last, he says, “They’d kill you.”

While he paused, he looked like he was thinking because he was thinking, thinking about how to take care of his own interests while appealing to hers. That’s what win-win or interest-driven persuasion is all about.

“They’d kill you.” What a perfect way to prevent her family from killing him, while also letting Mary save face. He doesn’t come right out and refuse to marry her. Rather, he helps her see why she might not want to marry him.

I invite you all to spot other instances of use of pauses and facial control, whether in movies or TV programs, or in real life. Or even better, how about trying the pause button yourself? I’d love to hear about your success.

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