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  • Donna Richards Muriel

Have You Mastered the Pause?



“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

- Abraham Lincoln


Last December I attended a workshop offered by Better Angels. The workshop taught skills to stay in conversations with people who have differing political views in a way that allows us to work together. While the skills I learned were valuable, what struck me most was the facilitator’s first sentence, “This is a skills workshop but the ability to stay in tough conversations of any kind starts with a way of being.”


I had the chance to put this into practice immediately. The workshop was designed to make things “safe” by pairing people with similar points of view together However, I was “accidentally” paired with a woman who had very different views than mine. Here I was in a workshop to practice skills to keep both parties engaged in a tough conversation and found myself sitting across from a woman who didn’t seem open or curious or engaged. Instead, I experienced her as blaming and accusatory toward me and my views while having very little desire to explore or challenge her own beliefs. What an extraordinary, not to mention challenging, experience to practice what the facilitator had named at the starting bell of the workshop.


As my conversation with my partner went on and I worked diligently to practice the new skills I was learning, I could feel my stomach clenching and my jaw tightening. My frustration level was rising at her lack of interest to understand my point of view. Fortunately, in that moment, I was able to pause and notice my frustration level rising. So, I had a choice about how I wanted to be in the conversation regardless of how she was showing up.


We’re all faced with conversations like that regularly. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a conversation about politics, religion, business or any other topic, we can easily get hijacked by our unconscious stories and be in the land of judgment, self-righteousness or reactivity before we know what hit us. Our lifeline in conversations like these is our awareness of our self. We must, must, MUST be aware of what’s happening for us internally. Self-Awareness is the secret weapon to being in tough conversations openly, honestly and courageously.


Self-awareness is at the core of what we teach in our leadership programs. Towards the end of a program, we often ask leaders to share practices that have worked for them to build the muscle of self-awareness. We consistently hear one simple (but not easy) practice, “I learned to pause.”


Most of us are moving from one meeting, conversation or task to the next so fast that we barely have time to breathe much less engage in the reflection needed to increase self-awareness. What the leaders in our programs (along with the leader typing this post) have found is that getting into the practice of pausing can have a huge impact on how they show up, particularly in tense situations or conversations. Pausing sounds simple. Doing it consistently and in a way that invites honest reflection is more challenging. Building the muscle of self-awareness is like building any other muscle, you’ve got to work it regularly or it will atrophy.


So, I’ve recommitted to practice pausing. For the next three weeks, you’ll find a weekly Pause Practice in your inbox. It will be a short, simple framework to guide you to pause and reflect. Please join me in this experiment of building the self-awareness muscle because, in the words of Carl Jung,


“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

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