The Surprising Power of Pausing Before Speaking

Finding the right emotional tone when communicating

Posted Jun 12, 2019

Pixabay image by Viganhajdari
Source: Pixabay image by Viganhajdari

Needless to say, communicating with a loved one isn’t always easy. We may think that our communication skills are good—and maybe they are. But what we may overlook is how our emotional tone is often more important than our choice of words. A snarky or irritable tone can poison the atmosphere for effective communication.

We’re wired with a longing for love and intimacy. We want kindness, caring, and affection. As Attachment Theory teaches, we don’t thrive when we’re not feeling emotionally safe with a person—when we’re not feeling seen, heard, and understood. When these core needs aren’t met, an inner danger alarm gets triggered. We become irritable and reactive as our fight, flight, freeze response is triggered.

As a couples therapist, I often experience the sad disconnection that happens when people get triggered. Deep down, there is a longing for connection. But what often gets communicated are sour tones, not sweet ones. Attacking, blaming, and shaming communication is kryptonite to the connection.

It is sad to see how well-meaning couples push each other away with little recognition of how they’re sabotaging themselves and their relationship. The reptilian brain seeks safety by blaming and shaming the other person rather than tapping into a more discerning part of our being that can take responsibility for how we’re contributing to the mess. 

Reacting is what our amygdala is good at. It is the product of millions of years of evolution. Without it, we wouldn’t have survived as a species. But this setup doesn’t work so elegantly if we’re interested in a thriving, intimate relationship.

Our sympathetic nervous system reacts immediately and thoughtlessly to real or imagined dangers in our environment. A predator glares at us and we run for cover. Over-thinking a dangerous situation might ensure that we’ll become lunch rather than find lunch.

Unfortunately, we may react in a similar manner when our sense of safety with our partner seems threatened. We might shut down and refuse to talk. We flee to a safer venue, such as a TV show or a computer game. Or we might go on the offensive, perhaps with a verbal attack such as, “How can you be so self-centered? You’re clueless! It’s always about you!”

Such caustic words are not infused with the sweet nectar that might draw love toward us. Sadly, our words and emotional tone are not congruent with the vulnerable longing for connection that is being frustrated.

What to do?

One of the most difficult things to do when we’re activated is to slow down. When every fiber of our being is screaming "threat ahead!" we may feel compelled to unleash a nasty torrent of toxicity toward our partner, with little care for the effect we’re having. Sadly, we often don’t realize the power we have over our partner, who probably wants what we do—a loving, safe connection.

The good news is that we have the power to create an atmosphere of safety in our relationships. The first step is to pause before we react. It’s not always easy, but if we can practice pausing when our blood is boiling, we turn down the heat and allow a chance for things to cool down before we open our mouths. Practicing pausing before we speak is a powerful way to create a safer climate for heart-to-heart communication.

Eugene Gendlin's approach of Focusing offers a practical way to slow down, go inside, and then uncover what we are really feeling deep down. We can then share our deepest feelings and longings from a calmer, more spacious place. 

Pausing gives us a chance to collect ourselves, take a breath, and get a handle on what’s happening inside us. Are we feeling angry, afraid, sad, or hurt? Pausing gives us a chance to notice these feelings—and become mindful about the tender needs and longings associated with them.

Pausing allows us to be gently present with our feelings, which gives them time to settle. It allows for self-soothing, which positions us to convey what we’re feeling in a responsible, authentic, congruent way.

If we can feel our breath and stay inside our body, we're better positioned to skillfully dance with our fiery emotions and sensations rather than unleash them. By increasing emotional safety in the relationship, we improve our chances of being heard.

It’s easier to hear, “I’m feeling sad and have been missing you and would love to spend time together,” rather than, “Your work is more important than me!”

We can’t control how others respond to us, but we have some control over our choice of words, which is important, and also our tone of voice, which may be even more important. If we pause before speaking, we give ourselves (and others) the gift of contacting what’s really happening inside us. If we can contact the tender feelings and vulnerable longings beneath our aggressive reactivity and find the courage to convey this, we may get heard in a new way, which can lead to the deeper connection we’re wanting. 

© John Amodeo