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ATD Blog

Pause: The Power of Cultivating Space Between Words

Thursday, January 24, 2019

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, . . . to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” —Rollo May

Knowing what words to use in any given situation is a common element of leadership, but the greatest leaders understand that greater power resides in the space between words. To pause means to suspend activity, whether in thought, speech, or actions, for a short amount of time. Pausing can help provide leaders clarity and freedom for discernment and deliberate reflection to evaluate their next course of action.

Mastering the art of the pause can be daunting, but it's possible. The following three situations can provide leaders an opportunity to practice pausing.

Coaching or Mentoring

Coaching and mentoring allow leaders the vastly influential ability to equip others with the skills to become leaders. When guiding mentees on their journeys, allow them opportunities to make the necessary mental connections and process their own thinking. Constantly giving answers makes them passive acceptors of any discoveries. Creating a pause before jumping in with solutions encourages employees to become active discoverers. The intellectual reward of self-discovery has permanent, positive, long-term effects.

Situational Conflict

Leaders frequently deal with emotionally charged situations; these can be made more challenging if the leader is also emotionally invested in the situation, courting bias and even danger. Once the brain perceives danger, the hypothalamus sends a signal to release adrenalin and cortisol into the bloodstream, overshadowing logic with a visceral fight-or-flight reaction.

When handling emotion, leaders should allow a pause to create a space between themselves and the situation, which shifts energy from adrenaline-infused emotion to logic-based reason. Let the momentary pause become a bridge of breath before lurching back into the situation. Build the bridge with reflection, consideration, and perspective, making choices that will not be doubted later.


If you can breathe calm, you can stay calm.


Leaders have ample opportunity for concentration and deliberation, but many of them neglect to turn inward in self-reflection. Leaders need the chance to evaluate their own performance, to create self-awareness, and to order their priorities if they are expected to guide their team to do the same. Successful leadership begins with knowing clearly what is being done and why. Leaders must ensure their actions and priorities are aligned and consistent to remain a figure of logical, responsible authority. All leaders should pause to check in with themselves. A self-reflective pause can be completed in just a few minutes a day. The trick is finding value from the inward pause, not from how long the pause takes.


The following five questions may aid in self-reflection:

  1. If I had the day to do over, what would I have done differently?
  2. What will I do differently tomorrow than I did today?
  3. What emotions arose today and why?
  4. What did I do today to further the success of those I lead?
  5. What was unclear or ambiguous today, and where am I struggling to make sense of the situation?

The haste at which we operate is in a constant state of progression. Faster. Quicker. Better. But as the world around us forges ahead, we owe it to ourselves, our businesses, and our teams to pause. Pausing gives us the opportunity to slow down to connect, reflect, ask, and understand, enabling us to be better leaders. It may seem we do not have time to pause; but when the rewards of doing so are positive and bountiful, time for pausing can always be found.

About the Author

Keith Keating is a senior director of GP Strategies supporting General Motors’ Center of Learning. With a career spanning more than 20 years in learning and development, Keith Keating holds a master’s degree in leadership and has experience in instructional design, leadership coaching, operations management, and process transformation. More recently, Keith has been leading GP Strategies’ clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied design thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found it was a perfect tool to add to his problem-solving toolkit. Since then, Keith has been using design thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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