My upcoming book, Women Can Renew the World If… and So Can You is peppered with How To’s, tips and exercises for engaging in productive discussions. Here’s a sneak peek of a How To about what to do when you don’t know what to say.
Did your parents ever tell you, “If you can’t find anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? Well, there’s a similar principle involved in productive discussions: If you can’t think of anything productive to say, push your pause button. Don’t speak immediately.
Always push your pause button if a statement from another makes you angry, offended, or otherwise triggers strong emotions. There are times, places, and ways to express righteous anger. However, it is not effective to let the first angry words that pop into your head exit through your mouth. Justifiable anger or offense works best if expressed mindfully.
Pause buttons have many virtues. Most obviously, they give you time to think about what, if anything, you wish to say. While you think in silence, the other person might be thinking as well, which is a good thing.
In fact, if you don’t fill the silence, they might fill it with elaboration on their own statements. Elaboration, in turn, often tells you more about their interests and concerns. Elaboration is what we seek when we ask open questions. As you learned in Chapter 2, acknowledging and addressing others’ concerns lays bricks in the road to a meeting of the minds.
Even when you have a pretty good idea of what you would like to say next, you may feel the other person could use a pause. If they seem emotional, give them a chance to calm down and think more clearly, just as you do for yourself. Do you want the first angry words that pop into their head to exit through their mouths at you? Or would you like them to think about what you said?
We all instinctively try to fill what feels like an awkward silence. Cultural differences in communication style (see Chapter 6) include the length of silent time that begins to feel awkward. Remember my difficulty connecting with a lady from New York City? Apparently, for her, any silence at all was awkward. She was accustomed to begin speaking before another had stopped.
You can say and do things during the pause to prevent it from feeling awkward to your counterpart: If you want your counterpart to elaborate, you can smile encouragingly. Raising your eyebrows while smiling, can show that you’re interested in what they said and encourage them to elaborate. Opening your hand, palm up, silently says, Give me more.
I almost always keep a bottle of water or a cup of tea near me. A sip of it comes in handy when I want a think break, or want to give someone else a think break. You can shift in your chair as if settling in more comfortably. You can stretch your arms, shoulders or neck.
Here are some things you can say when you decide to push your pause button or when silence may seem to go on too long:
- I’d like to think about that. (People are often encouraged to hear that you want to think about what they said.)
- Let me think.
- It seems that you put some thought into what you just said. I want to do justice to that by thinking about it too.
- Just a moment.
- Give me a moment.
If you want a longer break, say you are feeling so angry or upset that you need to get away from the other person for a while, excuse yourself to the restroom, or to refill your drink.
If you need an even longer break, let the person know that, and also make sure they know you want to continue the conversation by asking for agreement on a day and time to do so. “I can see you’ve thought about this a lot, and I want to do justice to that by thinking about what you said. Can we continue this discussion tomorrow at 3:00 p.m.?” Getting another to agree to a day and time to resume the conversation helps to ensure that you get a chance to express yourself after more thought.
Exercise: Pause Button
You don’t have to be discussing a touchy topic, your conversation doesn’t even need to be productive, in order to practice your pause button skills.
For the next few days, when you are casually chatting to a coworker over lunch, to your family over dinner, or to your neighbor over the fence, pause, smile and nod. Then notice what happens. I predict you will get positive results just by showing that you want to listen to them some more.
And let me know how you do.