Years ago, as a rookie reporter for my hometown newspaper, I received a valuable piece of advice from a mentor I admire and respect. Not only is he a great writer and storyteller, he also has a way of connecting with people that seems both effortless and heartfelt. I wanted to learn his secrets.

"How do you do that?" I asked, curious about how he got people to open up to him so quickly. "Nothing to it," he replied. "Just shut up and listen."

Shut up and listen. Four of the wisest words I've ever heard spoken, yet don't practice nearly enough. Turns out, I'm not alone.

Notwithstanding technology and the devices competing for our attention, research shows human beings have an incredibly hard time paying attention to each other. They have an even harder time keeping their mouths shut in conversation. That's because the human brain is built to respond to questions before the speaker is even aware of it.

"When one person asks another a question, it takes an average of 200 milliseconds for them to respond," writes Julie Beck in The Atlantic. "This is so fast that we can't even hear the pause."

In fact, the knee-jerk impulse to fill the silence kicks in faster than our brains work. "It takes the brain about half a second to retrieve the words to say something," Beck adds. That means that in conversation, "one person is gearing up to speak before the other is even finished."

This carries enormous implications for conversations we have, both professionally and socially. The reflex to respond before others finish their sentences, means we're either continuously interrupting others, or consumed by what we're going to say.

As a result, we're not listening --and that can be a total drag in casual conversation or a real liability in business. When people find themselves in conversations where others are continually interjecting, or simply tuning out, they lose interest. This one-sided exchange can kill deals, sour relationships or snuff out opportunities.

Luckily, there's a simple fix: the pause.

Whether you're negotiating your salary, pitching a new idea or getting to know someone new, pausing can be one of your most valuable tools of communication.

Here's why pausing is so effective:

It lets you breathe.

It may seem like common sense; but common sense is not common practice. A surprising number of people hold their breath, or take shallow breaths, when speaking. This constricts the blood flow to the brain and a person's ability to think. Pausing allows you to take a breath between words which, in turn, oxygenates the brain and allows you to articulate your thoughts more clearly and succinctly.

It aids understanding.

Rapid-fire speech is incredibly difficult to follow and understand, as anyone who's ever heard an auctioneer can affirm. Fast speech, or "pressured speech", arouses the amygdala which can cause anxiety in the listener and create a barrier to understanding.

Pausing is an effective tool to aid comprehension because it slows the tempo of speech, and doesn't make the listener work so hard to follow along. When people can understand your words, they are less likely to feel they're being duped. Fast, rambling speech breeds doubt, while clear articulate speech create understanding.

It let's you hear what others are saying.

Pausing gives other people room to speak without distraction. It gives speakers the space to say what they need to say, while giving you the opportunity to hear what's being said. By making a conscious effort to pause before responding, communication between speaker and listener becomes more collaborative and less competitive.

It builds trust.

Trust naturally builds when people feel heard. Conversely, distance and separation are nurtured when people feel like they have to compete for each other's attention.  When you are fully present in a conversation, pausing signals to others that you are listening. And that helps to build trust.

More than ever, pausing is essential to conversation. When distractions abound, and the competition for attention is intense, pausing provides a bridge to true understanding.

Published on: Dec 19, 2017