5 Reasons to Take a Breath Before Responding

I’ve been reminded of a very valuable lesson in my current role.  It seems so easy when you think about it, but in observation, few people seem to practice it.

Every day (for the great majority of us) we communicate with others. 

In communicating, there are a number of elements involved in order to be successful.  For example, you need to listen, use proper tone, and use the right words to clearly convey your message.  While these elements (and others) are all important, I want to focus in on one today:  “taking a breath”.

What am I talking about?  Taking a proverbial breath amounts to nothing more than pausing before you respond to someone.

Why is this important?  Taking a breath will:

  • Ensure you heard the whole message.  If you respond to someone without taking a breath, chances are that your mind was formulating your response while they were talking, which means you may not have heard their full message.
  • Formulate a better response.  By understanding the full message and giving yourself a moment to think, your response will likely be more thoughtful, clear, and pertinent, which in turn will be more readily accepted, which will lead to a better overall conversation.
  • Help you not say stupid things.  Pausing to formulate a better response keeps you from filling the empty space with rambling or stupid comments.  Don’t say dumb things.
  • Demonstrate maturity.  Having a thoughtful response and not saying dumb things helps others see you as a more mature communicator and thinker.  It also demonstrates respect to the person that you are communicating with in showing that you are really giving thought and consideration to your response.
  • Calm you down.  Pausing and taking a real breath will help you physiologically.  Taking a breath introduces oxygen in to your body and brain, which will help you stay calm and improve your thinking processes.

The interesting thing about this ‘proverbial breath’ is that it applies not only to face to face verbal communications, but to just about any form of communications.

Email is a good example.  While it definitely depends on the situation, email is generally not an urgent form of communication.

So, why is it that people feel the need to respond urgently to an email?  This is a topic that we could spend an entire blog series on, but for the purpose of this post we’ll say that you can apply the same “breath” here.   Take the time to think through your response.  It may be that your “pause” lasts several hours and you don’t respond until the next business day.  Be thoughtful and avoid the urge to always reply immediatley. 

Now, if you are worried about the “sun down rule” you can always respond with an acknowledgement of their communication followed by expectation setting.  Example, “Thank you for your email.  I will get back with you on this tomorrow.”

Two bonus points –

If you’ve paused, thought and still don’t know what to say, don’t be afraid to say, “Let me think about that and get back with you.” Or “Let me take that back and look in to it.” Or some variation thereof.  This gives you additional time to formulate a proper, educated response, which is usually appreciated more than an immediate half-formulated, somewhat coherent answer.

If your communication is heated or emotionally charged, don’t respond until you’ve calmed down.  If you’re face to face, try to separate from the situation as politely as possible.  If you’re on email, don’t respond.  This is a really good time to “sleep on it” or talk with someone first to gain perspective.  Nothing good comes from emotionally charged responses that perpetuate a situation.

Granted, there are exceptions to all of the above concepts, but as rules of thumb, they’re pretty solid.

Learning to take a breath before responding will definitely help you as a leader and will improve people’s perception of you as a leader.

What stories or examples do you have of “taking a breath” or “not taking a breath”?

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