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The "Power of the pause"

A few years back, a client was experiencing a lot of conflict within their department. Individual frustrations became exacerbated every time there was a misunderstanding. Because of that, team members were working against each other - undermining each other's authority and ignoring requests. That made everyone's job more difficult and reduced their effectiveness within the organization as a whole. They were stuck in an unhealthy cycle that, fortunately, the leadership was determined to change.

Miscommunication like this often reminds me of a fast-paced match of ping-pong. One misunderstanding leads to another, which leads to additional conflict and so on. When I observe this escalation happening in the moment, each person's comments are like a volley and there's an increase in the velocity, force and spin with each exchange. I feel the tension build with each lob of the ball and wonder - who's going to get this point?

This is because most people haven't learned to co-regulate their neurochemistry in the moment. Instead of recognizing that a stimuli - it could have been a word or an action or their tone of voice - was triggering. The individuals involved follow their programming to enter a patterned threat response of fight, flight, freeze or appease. Such a response is supposed to enable us to preserve and protect our wellbeing, but in contemporary work settings, it has the opposite effect.

As a result, one trigger begets another trigger, begets yet another trigger all leading to nerve-wracking tension. When this happens, it typically appears, to all parties involved, that a solution is out of reach.

Such situations are infuriating. And there's a better way to handle them. You just have to be open to approaching them differently.

This was the case with my client. Frustrating as it may have been, the circumstances offered a ripe opportunity for learning and applying the Conversational Intelligence framework. Conversational Intelligence is based on the latest neuroscience research. As the creator, Judith E. Galser said, “Conversational Intelligence (C-IQ) is the hardwired and learnable ability, to connect, navigate and grow with others – a necessity in building healthier and more resilient organizations in the face of change. C-IQ begins with trust, and ends with a high-quality relationship and business success.”

One of the things that I appreciate about the C-IQ framework is that it allows space for accommodating the nuances that are unique to the individuals and circumstances. Instead of offering a one-size-fits-all solution, it's a method that empowers leaders and professionals to access and cultivate their innate human abilities.

We are, as a species, hardwired to want to connect and belong. When we experience a trigger, we lose our sense of connection and belonging. As a result, we tend to jump to conclusions, making a bunch of stuff up and reacting to our assumptions instead of remaining level-headed.

It is in this space where we are triggered, telling ourselves a story that gets us all fired up, that the fight to win the next point in the match escalates.

But instead of reacting with a wicked backspin, we have a choice. We could realize that the conversation we are engaging in isn't akin to a game of ping-pong. It's not even a competition. It's more like playing jazz. It's improvisational; we are all operating around a shared understanding of the boundaries that ensure cohesion. And we are better as a whole when each individual player is well supported.

In this analogy, where conversations are like playing jazz (that I first learned from Carol Stormer), we are listening deeply to each other. There's attunement to the needs and expectations of others. We are gaining inspiration from their contributions, building together what we couldn't create alone.

Such an experience through conversation is possible. And it begins with being able to give voice to the times we lose our way due to triggering a patterned threat response. Just like a jazz player owns when they miss the beat or play in the wrong key signature.

This is what my client learned to do as a team. In gaining language (and even visuals) around triggers, they were able to interrupt the pattern. Instead of entering a competitive game of ping-pong, they recalibrated and played jazz.

This shift is what Christine Runyan calls the "power of the pause."

In a recent podcast with Krista Tippett, Runyan observed, "And this is why, when I think about what are the superpowers that we all hold in us that is also part of our source code, it’s that self-awareness — is there a pause point to be able to step out of that automatic pilot and then be able to make an intentional choice?"

After the training, a team member came to my client's office fired up. She simply gave a signal that said, "I'm triggered by this, let's recalibrate." Her colleague acknowledged the request and the tone of the conversation changed entirely in positive ways. Instead of competing, they worked to find an amicable solution, then implemented it together.

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