A Research Paper By Maya Dreifus, Career Coach, UNITED STATES
Power of the Pause
Rollo May, an American Psychologist, said:
Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.
How many times have we uttered phrases like, “If only I could turn back time” or “I wish I could go back and make a different choice”? As a parent of young children, I experience this multiple times a day. Kids (and other people in our lives) have a way of finding our hot buttons, then pushing them with great abandon. The result? For me, up until about 16 months ago, a rumbling, even an eruption of the great ‘mama-volcano’, brought on by untamed emotion. An inability to control that immediate feeling that seems to take over, yet, just as quickly, to let go. What is left once the emotion subsides? Often guilt, regret, disappointment, and a desire to do better next time.
When I began my coaching journey with ICA 16 months ago, I learned that the power of coaching lies in silence and in holding space for the client. With well-placed questions and a safe space to talk, as if by magic, the client begins to work through their challenges out loud. That space provides the time needed by our brain to really process what has happened. To look at it from a fresh perspective, to step outside of the emotion, and think more objectively using logical reasoning.
While we may not have 30-60minutes of coaching space to devote to every issue we face, we can certainly spare 4-6 seconds to pause. Taking the time to pause in a moment of high stress, tension, or emotion can lead us to a better, more informed, objective, and the thought-through path forward. Turning an emotional reaction into a controlled response puts us back into the driver’s seat and minimizes guilt, and the need and desire to turn back time.
Now let us examine why the pause is such a powerful self-regulation mechanism. What about it psychologically and physiologically can change the decision-making process. And, ultimately, what is the magic behind the 4-6 second interval.
Meaning and Importance of the Pause Explanation
Cognitive Load Theory, developed by John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist, states that our working memory has a limited amount of space for holding information. In fact, learning materials are often designed with this in mind. For example, have you noticed that reading a diagram that has all the steps labeled right on it takes significantly less time than having to look back and forth between the visual and a separate legend?That happens because the first diagram takes up less working memory. Since space in our brain is limited, multiple simultaneous inputs and/or situations with high stress and tension can lead to information overload. The probability of someone making the best decision in such situations is low. But what if there was a way to lower the cognitive load?
In the medical field, certain decisions are literally life-or-death. Having ‘timeouts’ during surgery has had a positive impact on patient safety. Medicine is also a discipline where inputs are many and complex, leading to high usage of working memory. A study was done in 2020 with medical learners to test the assumption of cognitive load theory. Specifically, “that insertion of pauses positively affects cognitive load, thereby enhancing performance”. In this study, “pausing” was defined as “a possible and voluntary action that interrupts a given task performance to provide extra time for necessary cognitive processes”.470 students were randomly assigned to one of two emergency medicine game simulations – one with and one without the ability to take pauses. Among other findings, the study showed that “the act of pausing…temporarily lowered cognitive load, especially during intense moments.”4 Students were able to create space for themselves, space that could lead to a more accurate diagnosis, a steadier hand during a surgical procedure, or simply to noticing something that would otherwise go overlooked.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a ‘pause’ is “a temporary stop”.Like in the hit show Lucifer, by pausing we have all just become Archangel Amenadiel with the power to temporarily stop time. We have lowered our cognitive load, and literally made more space in our working memory to better assess what is in front of us.
The University of Louisville’s “Develop Your Pause Practice” states that pausing has the following benefits:
- “Allows you to handle challenging moments to the best of your ability
- Helps you refocus
- Gives the nervous system a chance to regain balance
- Allows you to be curious and offers a shift in perspective
- Builds your stress resilience”
Beyond more working brain space and the benefits listed above, another important reason for taking a pause is evolutionary. How many of us have witnessed a child’s tantrum? The child appears to be completely overtaken by their big feeling, unable to hear or see reason until the emotion subsides. Then, when asked what the cause of the tantrum was, the child calmly gives their answer, as if nothing has happened. “Research shows that the limbic system, often referred to as our brain’s “emotional center”, takes [only]350 milliseconds to respond to stimuli. Our neocortex, the “executive center” of the brain, takes 4-6 seconds.”Said another way, pausing allows our thoughts and actions to catch up to our immediate emotional response (the adult version of the tantrum). The same emotional response that often leaves us with feelings of lack of control, guilt, and a desire to turn back time to fix the mess we may have made in our haste. Allowing the neocortex to have a voice in emotionally charged circumstances may alter or completely change the way that we perceive and, therefore, respond to the same situation.
Above, we have investigated the power, meaning, and importance of the pause. Now, let’s turn to its significance when applied to the coaching space. From the client’s standpoint, with space and reflection, there could be a path to a clearer, more positive perspective. An opportunity to self-regulate away from a place of high emotion to a place where one can focus on the facts. Interestingly, self-regulation actually increases cognitive load, because it requires the investment of additional resources into the thinking process. However, it also enhances performance, as the person’s resulting self-awareness helps to optimize cognition.4Lastly, the client can pivot to solutions and move forward, which is the very reason for coaching’s existence.
From the coach’s perspective, by pausing we can lower our own cognitive load and get out of our heads. We can listen to our clients without judgment. We can be truly curious about our client, both the “who” and the “what”. We can be free of that emotional response and knee-jerk reaction to give advice, to lead the client. We can be present, asking the questions that are most in service of our client, facilitating client awareness and growth.
Taking a Pause Creates Space
The scope of this paper did not include examining the downsides of pausing, nor the potential benefits of leading with emotion (vs with logic and reason). In addition, little direct research has been done on ‘pausing’.This is surprising, considering how prevalent the technique is in a variety of fields, inclusive of parenting, wellbeing, medicine, and others.
One thing is clear – pausing, even for the length of one deep breath, has tremendous power. My timed deep breath took 6.87 seconds. Longer than I expected. Certainly, long enough for the neocortex to come online.
Pausing translates into clear physical and psychological benefits. It decreases our brain’s cognitive load. It increases the amount of available working memory, literally giving us space to process. It allows us to temporarily stop time, to re-orient ourselves, and to re-assess the situation. It gives our neocortex the seconds necessary to catch up with our limbic system, preventing our emotions from ruling our path. Best of all, pausing is free and accessible to everyone.
Based on the research referenced, there is no doubt that taking a pause creates space. It opens possibilities that can lead to meaningful outcomes, ones that were not an option when the limbic system was in control. Pausing provides the space and time to make a different choice. One where we will not look back and think “if only I could turn back time”. In the words of Sebastian Vettel, a German motorsport racing driver, “Sometimes you need to press pause to let everything sink in.”
So, the next time you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed like you have too much going on…go ahead and pause. Take that luxurious deep breath. Allow your brain some much-needed space and choose to turn time forward, live richly in the present, to make decisions that you will reflect on with joy, validation, and positivity for years to come.
Rollo May quote
Cognitive Load Theory: Helping People Learn Effectively
Different Effects of Pausing on Cognitive Load in a Medical Simulation Game (2020)
Merriam-Webster ‘pause’ definition
Develop Your Pause Practice
Pausing with Purpose (2021)
 Sebastian Vettel quote