A Pause Gives Us the Gift of Grace

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~Victor Frankl

DSCN3073In recent weeks, we’ve reviewed the many benefits of kindness: health, relationships, life satisfaction, professional and business success, to name just a few. And we’ve talked about factors that can get in the way of our best kind intentions, including fear, time, apathy, obliviousness, and keeping score.

Let’s revisit the good stuff now, the skills of kindness—practices we can add to our daily lives to expand the kindness around us. Most of the skills to extending kindness and countering unkindness are pretty simple . . . but that doesn’t mean they’re always easy. They take practice. Kindness can’t be turned on and off like a faucet. It’s something we develop with practice—just as we improve in playing tennis or the saxophone.

A great way to think about the skills we’ll be exploring over the coming weeks is to see them as tools in our toolbox, or—using a more high-tech analogy—as apps we can download and call upon when needed.

For today, let’s look at a skill that sounds simple, but is tough in practice: learning to pause.

When we’re insulted or disrespected, we often respond in a knee-jerk fashion. We sling an insult right back, or we say something that we hope will put the offender in their place. It’s an automatic reaction, and it takes some effort not to succumb to it. But there are a few excellent reasons not to:

  • When we behave rudely in return for someone’s rude behavior, we’re sinking to their level. We’re modeling their behavior. Generally, all that does is escalate the situation and confirm to the rude person that their behavior was justified.
  • An instant response doesn’t allow us to consider other possibilities: maybe we misunderstood, or maybe the other person did. Possibly there’s something going on in their life right now that caused them to overreact and they’re wishing they could take back their inconsiderate comment.
  • An instant response doesn’t give us a chance to make a choice about who we want to be and how we want this interaction to play out. If we’re serious about wanting a kinder world, we need to model the behaviors that support that world.
  • Every time we successfully pause and then act with intention, we clear the path toward kindness. Soon, it becomes easier … maybe even our default setting.

People have told me that while this sounds very well and good, it’s hard, and it feels weak not to respond strongly to a rude or offensive person. It feels like you’re letting them walk all over you. It is hard, and that’s why not responding in like manner is really a show of strength, not weakness.

If you show a bully or someone seeking to intimidate you that you’re not going to sink to their level, they may fold like a cheap card table. If the person really is a jerk, they’ll often withdraw or move on to an easier target. If they aren’t a jerk, but just reacted badly in the moment, you’ve deescalated a situation no one wanted to go any farther. You might get an apology, but even if not, you’ve given them an awareness that we have a choice in how we respond, that Michelle Obama is right when she says, “If they go low, we go high.”

In that pause after a perceived insult, we have an opportunity to ask several questions:

  • Is it possible there’s a misunderstanding here?
  • Who do I want to be in this interaction? Am I representing my values?
  • Could this person just be having a very bad day?

That pause gives us options:

We might respond with curiosity. Ask “Why did you say that?” or “Is that really what you meant to say?” “Help me understand why you’d say something like that.” Keep the tone neutral, not accusatory.

If we do choose to respond, there are questions we can ask ourselves before doing so: Is what I’m about to say true? Is it mean? Is it kind? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? What’s important to me?

We might choose not to respond at all. One of the gifts of learning to pause is the lesson that we don’t always need to respond. We can save our breath. We can walk away. This is one of those times when silence can be golden.

If someone is a true jerk, a bigot, or a bully, they are fueled by attention and by negative engagement. We’re not going to change them, so the best thing to do is ignore them. If their insulting or bullying was directed at someone other than us, interact with their victim, support them and help them exit the situation before it escalates.

The trick is to remember that we don’t have to let someone else’s incivility trigger our own bad behavior. Just because someone else is behaving like a jackass doesn’t mean we should, too. This is so simple, but it’s not easy.

A pause is not a vacant space. It’s where we choose who we will be in this moment, and the next, and the one after that.

When we take that brief moment to think about what we want to happen and who we want to be, we might totally change our reaction, or perhaps decide not to respond at all. That pause always guides us to a better place. It gives us the gift of grace.

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

15 thoughts on “A Pause Gives Us the Gift of Grace

  1. The other day we were at my daughters graduation. Us, as well as a bunch of other families, got there two hours early to get seats. When the graduation started people kept coming up the center aisle and kept looking around, and it was difficult to see already because even getting there two hours early , some people were there three hours early. So we were constantly interrupted. Then people literallly stood in front of us so we now could not see, and stood in front of the tv screens. These people wouldn’t listen to security (to be clear it wasn’t all maga hats, there were just as many Biden groupies) should we let the people stand in front of us and block the view so we don’t sink to there level when they were asked, politely, to sit down? How would you have handled the situation and gone high? Or would you have resorted to staying bye Felicia on late night tv?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You always have such good questions, LA. If repeated courteous requests to sit down or move were continually ignored, I would probably try to understand why, by asking in a neutral tone, trying not to let my buttons be pushed. If there are ushers or security personnel, I would continually ask them to intervene (as it sounds like you did). As a last resort, I might pull out my phone and very obviously record them, explaining that adults behaving badly at a college graduation is something we can all learn from—especially their kids. This situation has the potential of becoming a real pissing match; I hope grown-ups remember that the day belongs to the graduates and the adults shouldn’t be spoilers. Some people will be jackasses no matter what—especially if they had a few celebratory mimosas before the event. I guess, in the end, I’d like to be guided by the question, “Am I going to feel good or bad about the next thing I do?” (Sorry to say,I don’t understand the “bye Felicia on late night tv” reference. Does that mean I’m officially old?)

      Liked by 2 people

      • No. Not old at all. Someone who preaches stay high went in one of the jimmys and said bye Felicia, which is apparently a sign of disrespect towards someone else. Like if you don’t like red hats, you would say bye Felicia in response to the red hat. The situation at graduation was ridiculous. People complied only when the head of security stood there. I wasn’t as vocal as the woman in front of me…she asked security about twenty times. But the blatant disregard for people just doing there jobs is incredible. Though as an aside, I would love for you to take real
        Life examples of a ituation and how you responded vs how you could have responded.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for the suggestion, and for explaining “Bye Felicia.” I am baffled by the behavior of some people–it’s like they never learned that they aren’t the center of the universe … and they never will.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. YES! Thank you, Donna! I just finished reading _You’re Not Listening_ by Kate Murphy, and your post reminds me of the central tenet of the book–that listening is how we connect with one another, and it’s a way of *being* before it’s a thing we do. In the pause, if we can listen with our whole selves, using all of our senses (hear tone/timbre of voice, see posture and facial expression, feel energy), then we can more easily give ourselves the space to ask, “What do I not know, what am I missing?” and “What do I want from this encounter?” I often end up answering the second question with, “Nothing,” and that allows me to let go and disengage, free from any hard feelings–or at least that’s the story I tell at this minute… I’m sure I’m forgetting my own dog-with-a-bone moments… Anyway, thank you for prompting some thought and reflection! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At my first job I used to ignore the bully behaviour of the boss. However I noticed that that ignoring increased somehow is bad behaviour toward me. It’s was a very toxic place to stay in for me. I could clearly see that I was treated as not being part of their organization. Something like they had the right to abuse me because they were being abused in the past and that was a kind of lesson that everybody has to go through. I decided to leave at it was the best thing I did

    Liked by 1 person

    • Giovanni, how wise you were to exit that toxic environment, rather than endure abuse. There’s no excuse for a workplace that tolerates bullying behaviors. It’s not, as some say, a rite of passage in the work world. One of my first jobs was in an organization whose CEO was a bully and it permeated every aspect of the company. It taught me to never again work in such conditions and that I would never behave like that when I assumed positions of management and responsibility. Thanks for your comment.


  4. Every time we successfully pause and then act with intention, we clear the path toward kindness

    Well said, but also leaves open the fact that kindness doesn’t mean being passive in the face of bullying behaviors. Anymore there’s a fine line we all walk with people who behave aggressively for no apparent reason other than they can. Once upon a time restraint was more in vogue, but now intentional disrespect seems to be acceptable. I have a difficult time wrapping my head around it some days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Boy, so do I, Ally! I get that there are some people who are just bullies, who are consistently rude and deliberately mean. What I don’t get is how many people are willing to stand on the sidelines and cheer them on, who seem to think that bad behavior is a sign of strength, and they reward it with their cheers, their votes, and replication of the behavior. Most bullies are cowards and they’re counting on people being too afraid to stand up to them. That’s why we must do so—without stooping to their level.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You’re right, being kind is sometimes hard and doesn’t always come naturally to us. But when we can manage it, it’s a win-win situation more often than not. “Turning the other cheek” sometimes is misinterpreted as weakness, but it really means that we’re simply choosing not to behave and interact in a way that doesn’t match who we really are and who we want to be.
    I’ve read the comments above with interest, because of courses there are specific situations where we need to stand our ground or be more firm. But even then, we can do so in a civil and respectful way. It’s hard to interact civilly with the sort of people who would stand right in front of someone else’s view at a graduation, but being aggressive with them would just make things worse, I think. And what is it about graduations that brings out the worst in people? I remember having that problem at my friend’s high school graduation back in 1976! (The people in the row in front of us stood up most of the time and cheered loudly and wildly when their grad walked across the stage, despite the school authorities directives to hold applause until the end.) Celebrating their own child’s success while preventing other parents from doing the same is beyond selfish!

    Liked by 1 person

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