Thinking Out Loud

Pause Button

Even though modern brain science has helped us get beyond thinking of ours in mechanical terms, I sometimes refer to our brains as meaning making machines. That’s because it is so automatic when we try to understand, we give some kind of meaning to what we perceive/hear/feel.  But giving meaning without enough information risks getting it wrong and that’s when we need a pause button. 

Daily we engage in conversations and discussions with familiar people. We often assume that we know what they mean by what they say, so it’s easy for a conversation to progress based on this assumption. But because of the assumption we often don’t take enough care to make sure we truly understand what the other person means—hence the pause button. We need the pause button to stop the flow of interaction so we make sure we understand the nuances and use of language. In other words, so we get what the other person really means.

Here’s an example: Joe tells Joan that he wishes they would spend more time together. This confuses Joan and she points out that they just spent the whole day together. Joe takes issue with her, saying that they worked outside in the yard doing chores. Without missing a beat Joan acknowledges how much she enjoyed it and it made her feel particularly close to Joe. Joe is baffled and goes away believing that Joan only wants superficial contact in their relationship.

Theoretically, if Joan had used the pause button, she might have asked Joe what he was thinking about when he said he wanted to spend more time together. Joe, then, would have replied that they hadn’t planned a getaway in a long time, to which Joan would have suggested they go away together next weekend (since they had just gotten their yard work done!).

This is a simple example, but represents an all too common type of misunderstanding as familiar conversation flows between loved ones. Of course, this kind of misunderstanding can happen in any context—at work, the post office, between parents and kids, etc. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do I really know what’s important to the other person, what they are really getting at? The pause button helps us clarify meaning and move to real understanding.

Communication Tip: State your intention/goal at the beginning of the conversation, so the other person has a context for the discussion and knows what you’re trying to accomplish.

Back to the blog