This is a story about the easiest trick I've seen to improve effective emotional intelligence. It's the kind of thing you'll find in my free e-book Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021 (download here). 

It's such a simple tactic, and frankly I'm going to bet you've been advised to do it often. But many people don't do it, which leads to subpar results. 

OK, let's get right to it. Wait a minute.

No, seriously, that's it: "Wait a minute." Or else, wait an hour, or a day, or a year as the case may be. 

In a world with so many things competing for our attention, and in which bold, decisive action is equated with power and moral rectitude, don't fall for it. Instead, have the courage to wait, and to stand out.

Below we'll examine three examples that explain why I say the usefulness of this tactic is tied to emotional intelligence, and then end it all with a plot twist.

(I am not unaware that promising you a plot twist later in this article plays right into my message of patience.)

Power and control

First, the framework. Waiting, taking a pause, counting to five -- maybe let's call it "tactical patience," to borrow a military term -- is about two things: power and control.

The power aspect derives from the fact that anytime you respond quickly and instinctively to an external stimulus, you're acquiescing to the outside power.

Imagine: Your boss sends you an unexpected text on the weekend. You get an alert on your phone, stop immediately to read it, and either you respond right away or you're at least distracted from whatever you were focused on minutes earlier.

So much for your family picnic, or bike ride, or volunteer project, or however you spend your downtime.

Or else, a customer sends an angry email. You run a customer-centric company, so you set aside whatever else it is that you're doing to ensure the concern is addressed, or at least delegate it to someone to handle.

Tell me, who has the power now, in these relationships?

Now think about control: You see that after-hours text or that angry email, and it's a challenge to focus on its contents rather than its context.

  • Why is my boss messaging me on a Saturday afternoon?
  • What will she think if I don't reply right away?
  • Has she sent it to colleagues, too, some of whom will reply faster than me?
  • Will that customer take his business elsewhere?
  • Am I going to look back at my phone in an hour and see that he's started a social media maelstrom?

Maybe some of these are legitimate concerns. (Obviously, I'm assuming you're not a heart surgeon, or someone whose work involves messages asking you to make immediate life or death decisions.)

But you'll notice that not one among these concerns has anything to do with the practical issues. Instead, they're about emotions. 

Waiting means you're demonstrating control over your emotions. Dropping everything means ceding control.


Next up: reciprocity. If I have two big criticisms of many popular interpretations of the concept of emotional intelligence, it's these:

  • First, so much advice about this subject focuses on telling you how you should change your behavior. It's equally important, maybe more so, to recognize how other people's lack of emotional intelligence governs their behavior -- and consequently, how you can use that understanding advantageously.
  • Second, there's an underlying implication that emotional intelligence is aligned with empathy, mutual understanding, and for lack of a better phrase, just being nice to people. 

I think that implication is wrong. I'm all in favor of ethical standards and treating people well, obviously. But these are separate concerns, much as cognitive intelligence and moral fiber are different concepts.

With that in mind, consider a simple proposition: Whatever pressures you feel to react quickly, whether they're emotional or instinctive or something else, they're almost certainly universal pressures.

If you feel them, there's a good chance that others in whatever relationship we're talking about feel them too.

This is why the "rule of awkward silence," articulated so well by my colleague Justin Bariso and others, works. Some science suggests that humans perceive even a four-second delay in conversation as awkward, which creates an emotional reaction and a rush to answer. 

We can extrapolate that: the 10 hours that go by with no reply to an email, the three days that pass with no response to an offer in a negotiation.

To put it indelicately: If you don't fill the silence, there's a pretty good chance the other side will. Let them do it.

Patience for good

Finally (well, except for the plot twist), this doesn't apply only to acrimonious or competitive situations.

Most of the examples we've examined so far do involve conflict: the boss's email, the angry customer, the tense negotiation.

But I hope your day isn't filled only with these kinds of exchanges. In fact, this trick -- this tactical patience -- comes into play with much more harmonious communications as well.

Let's adapt one of our former examples. Let's say you're running a consumer goods company. You've been distracted from day-to-day operations lately because you want to raise money, and it's a grind. 

Out of the blue, you get an email from a customer who wants to tell you how impressed she was with one of your employees who solved a problem for her. She thanks you, and says you've earned a customer for life.

You're about to fire off a quick reply, but then you notice her signature block. She's a partner at one of the same investment firms you've been trying to get a meeting with.

Obviously, you want to respond, but your mind starts racing. How do I use this introduction to the best advantage for my company? The clock is ticking, right? She's not somebody you want to keep waiting.

No. Keep waiting. At least long enough to think clearly and craft a response strategy. Again, this might mean 10 minutes; it might mean 10 hours. But savor that good news and that opportunity for at least a short while, before giving in to the impulse to respond.

The plot twist

We could offer historical and hypothetical examples all day. One of the things that got me thinking deeply about this recently was to come across two stories Warren Buffett tells about waiting and not waiting.

  • He says the worst business decision he ever made was to impulsively buy Berkshire Hathaway in the 1960s, after he felt taken advantage of by its then-CEO. (Obviously, he recovered, and built the company into a juggernaut, but he insists the money could have been much better spent at the time.)
  • And he also cites Tom Murphy (a veteran media executive and member of the Berkshire board of directors) with impressing upon him the idea that "You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow ... But don't spout off in a moment of anger."

Now, for the plot twist. It's that the idea of emotional intelligence has become so fraught lately. Does it do more good or harm to examine this concept of tactical patience within that whole rubric? 

I think it's helpful, but I can see the other side. For example, I found Merve Emre's recent critical take on the whole concept in The New Yorker intriguing, if not 100 percent compelling.

Still, does the label matter? I'm reminded of the reaction to a study I've written about in the past, suggesting that young girls whose parents hold them to high standards will grow up to be more successful adults. 

It wasn't without controversy, but as a colleague of mine put it: 

Sure, having a healthy sense of self-esteem and believing that you have options is great, but not getting pregnant just because you "don't want to hear it" is fine with us, too. Whatever. Just make it not be so.

I think it's the same thing here. You can agree that waiting and practicing tactical patience is a sign of high emotional intelligence.

Or you can push back and suggest it's just a smart way to reduce the odds that you'll react impulsively--maybe even entice the other side to do so--and, overall, improve the odds of getting what you want in business and in life.

Either way, I'd be interested to hear what you think. 

But don't do it now. Wait until at least tomorrow, and see if you still want to.

(Don't forget the free e-book: Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021.)