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Desert Highway
Thoughtful writing authored and shared by members of of the Thinking Collaborative community to support others on the journey.

Sustaining the Journey

Universal Pausing Patterns

Authored By:

Thinking Collaborative


March 07, 2016

As we work in more global settings, coaches and collaborators are challenged by cultural norms and common stereotypes. Paul Ekman has helped us to understand seven universal emotions that cross cultures -- anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Some new research is also pointing to some universals in patterns of pausing. Stephen Levinson describes the pattern of turn taking in a conversation. His research team at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics studied 10 distinct languages for gaps between when one speaker stopped speaking and the other started. The typical gap was 200 milliseconds long, with miniscule variation. The finding indicates that we are capable of hearing a person while simultaneously thinking about our response. The researchers suggest this is a uniquely human capability.

In our work with Adaptive Schools and Cognitive CoachingSM we teach pausing before speaking in order to let both parties think. It is interesting to conjecture what might happen if we increased the gap in our turn-taking. In classrooms, longer pauses resulted in more thinking and responses. One can only hypothesize about the effects in conversations between two adults. Experientially, we have found that longer pauses tend to result in enriched cognition.

Tanya Stivers found that longer gaps between turn taking occurred in four instances: when the person didn’t answer the question, when the response went against the bias of the questioner, when there was little eye contact, and when there was nodding by the listener.

Many of us find pausing to be among the most challenging of the listening skills. Perhaps this universal language pattern explains our difficulty in working against what is universal and natural discourse. As coaches and collaborators, attend to pausing in your conversations and notice when it most often occurs and the impact of the pauses.

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