We'll explain the power and the science behind it shortly. But first -- trust me on this -- a pause:
- One one-thousand.
- Two one-thousand.
- Three one-thousand.
- Four one-thousand.
OK, that's enough. Statistically, we're probably at the end of your patience. Any longer and this article would start to get awkward. And that's the point.
Based on science
This trick is based on the work of psychologist Namkje Koudenburg of the psychology department at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology a decade ago, Koudenburg said she'd figured out why conversations that have no reason to become difficult can nevertheless become quite awkward.
In short (which is itself an amusingly ironic conditional given the circumstances), it's because silence past a certain point incites emotion: fear, longing, just-plain uncomfortableness.
And that certain point is four seconds.
- One Mississippi.
- Two Mississippis.
- Three Mississippis.
- Four Mississippis.
"They immediately sense that there is something wrong"
Koudenburg's experiment involved dividing 162 graduate student subjects into two groups, each of which watched a different version of a six-minute video clip. They were asked to imagine themselves playing the part of one of the women in the video.
- In one version of the video, the woman made a controversial comment, which was followed immediately by other participants' reactions.
- In the other version, the woman made the same controversial comment, which was followed by four seconds of silence, and then followed by the other participants' identical reactions.
The four seconds made a huge difference, with those who'd been asked to identify with the girl in the "pause video" feeling "distressed, afraid, hurt, and rejected," and self-reporting higher levels of negative emotions.
"Even when people are not consciously aware that there is a silence, they immediately sense that there is something wrong," Koudenburg told NBC News.
- One Piccadilly.
- Two Piccadillys.
- Three Piccadillys.
- Four Piccadillys.
(This is for our British readers, who apparently say "Piccadilly" instead of "Mississippi" to count off seconds.)
Achieve your ultimate objectives
Emotionally intelligent people might not have read Koudenburg's study, and they might or might not identify four seconds as exactly the cut-off between awkward and not-awkward.
But they certainly understand that patience empowers, and there is in fact a statistical, temporal point where comfort gives way to discomfort.
They understand that emotional intelligence is about more than just being nice to other people. Instead, it's the studied practice of leveraging emotions -- both yours and other people's -- so as to make it more likely that you'll achieve your ultimate objectives.
So, they use this understanding both strategically and ethically. For example, they know that sometimes in a conversation or a negotiation, you want to ease someone else's emotional discomfort.
Thus, when a pause approaches the awkward threshold, they might have planned a way to break it, either with a substantive response, a humorous interjection, or just: "Hmmm, let me think about that for a second."
But they also know that sometimes awkwardness might be a tactical advantage.
And they might not want to break it at all.
They intentionally let four seconds turn into five, then 10. Let the other side feel the need to interject, and then either repeat what they've already said or else even start negotiating against themselves.
- One steamboat.
- Two steamboats.
- Three steamboats.
- Four steamboats.
(That's the Canadian version, apparently. I might suggest "One Manitoba," since that would be the same number of syllables. But it's really none of my business.)
The organizational advantage
There's one more strategic advantage to utilizing the four-second rule. It has to do with the theory that all conversations can be broken down into a series of shorter conversations.
Still, the momentum from each shorter conversation winds up affecting the overall.
I've probably done 5,000 or more recorded and transcribed interviews with people over a 20+ career as a lawyer and writer.
The No. 1 thing I can tell you is that no matter how hard you pay attention, no matter how hard you try to remember every single thing that you talked about, the best you'll do is to hover around 30-percent recollection.
Four-second pauses, however, make it easier to divide conversations into sections.
That makes it easier to control the pacing and tone, but it also makes it easier to remember what the heck you talked about in between each pause.
I probably can't convince you of this in a vacuum, so just give it a try next time you have a conversation -- or especially a negotiation -- that you expect will last more than a few minutes. Count it off yourself:
- One Bill Murphy.
- Two Bill Murphys.
- Three Bill Murphys.
- Four Bill Murphys.
(I'll bet this gets you closer to 1 second between counts than Mississippi or Piccadilly or steamboats. Plus, it would be cool if people started using my name to count seconds.)
This is where we land. I'm confident that I've uncovered a litany of simple, rhetorical tricks that make people more persuasive. The dilemma is whether to share them broadly, without knowing whether the people reading and implementing them will advocate for the greater good.
It puts me in the same boat, so to speak, with Socrates, who debated the question 2,500 years ago, in the fifth century BC: Should you teach the tactics of rhetoric, regardless of what your student might advocate for?
As someone who has literally compiled a lot of this into an entire free e-book -- 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence -- I can see only one solution:
Empower indiscriminately, while hoping that just as both the good and the bad among us will employ them and their audiences will be aware of their effect, and thus better able to disarm and discern.
In other words?
- One trust in humanity.
- Two trust in humanity.
- Three trust in humanity.
- Four trust in humanity.