Communicating is easily the single most important job of leaders. If leadership is mostly about influence--and it is--then the ability to communicate a vision and motivate people to move toward that vision is the single most important characteristic a leader can have. 

The problem is, communication is hard. Sometimes people don't understand the message we want to communicate. Sometimes we do a really poor job of expressing what we mean. In many cases, the way we communicate is directly affected by our perception of our position in a relationship, how we feel about the person we're talking with, and our opinion on the subject of conversation.

Often those variables combine to make it more difficult than it needs to be to communicate effectively, especially when there is disagreement or emotions start to rise. In those cases, the 10-second rule can dramatically change any conversation. 

It's really quite simple: In any conversation during which the temperature has started to rise, wait 10 seconds before you respond. That's it. Just stop. Don't respond immediately. Instead, wait and give yourself a moment to be intentional in your response, instead of emotional. It isn't magic, but you might be surprised at how well it works. Here's what I mean.

It freezes the crazy cycle. 

The crazy cycle is what happens when we are offended or frustrated and respond negatively in an effort to get another person to change. They, in turn, are frustrated and offended and respond negatively. The whole thing usually escalates pretty quickly, and suddenly you're not communicating, you're in combat. I first heard the cycle described this way by Emerson Eggerichs, who regularly speaks about relationships, but I think it applies to almost every conversation--especially those we have at work. 

By taking 10 seconds to stop and collect your thoughts and emotions before you respond, you freeze the crazy cycle in place and have an opportunity to respond differently from how you might have otherwise. Sometimes taking a few deep breaths is all you need 

It disarms the conversation.

While you're taking 10 seconds, something interesting happens. The other person in the conversation is also snapped out of the cycle. The temporary pause is disarming. 

In many cases, it'll be completely unexpected. The usual response to criticism is defensiveness. When people get offended, they tend to punch back. That's what people expect, and it fuels the crazy cycle. 

On the other hand, when you stop feeding a negative response into the cycle, the other person also has time to collect their thoughts and reflect on your response. That means you can actually have a conversation instead of combat.

It refocuses you on the people.

Finally, taking a pause before you respond gives you a chance to refocus on the people you're communicating with, not just the topic. When you're communicating with your team, it's helpful to remember that you're all trying to accomplish the same mission. Even if you passionately disagree about a topic, reminding yourself that you're on the same side can go a long way. 

Even if you discover that you aren't on the same side, you'll be much better equipped to coach your team if you take a breath and think through your response instead of doing so emotionally out of frustration. Either way, the goal should be to recalibrate your conversation so that you're talking to a person, not just responding to their position.