Did you ever notice how our actions tend to be reactive, as opposed to proactive?

This is often a good thing. Think about it: Good reflexes can help you avoid a car accident or jump to a friend's aid without hesitation.

But we get into trouble when we let emotions rule those reactions. For example, how do you typically respond when:

  • You read an email that implies you dropped the ball
  • Your significant other blames you for something you feel is unfair
  • Another driver cuts you off on the highway

If you're not careful, your reaction could make any of these situations much worse than it has to be. Go too far, and you'll do irreparable damage to your career, your relationship, and your reputation.

The thing is, we usually think much differently about these situations after we've been given time to reflect.

The One-Step Method to Better EQ

Emotional intelligence (EQ) includes the ability to understand and manage our emotions, using them to work for us instead of against us. Like any ability, it can be learned, trained, and honed to help produce desirable outcomes.

What one action can sharpen your EQ and save you from doing something you regret?

The pause.

Pausing--at times, even for just a few seconds--can make a major difference in how you react. Before you dismiss this as simple common sense, remember:

The pause is easy in theory, difficult in practice.

Even if we're generally good at managing our emotions, factors like added stress or a bad day can inhibit our ability to do so at any given time.

But when you work on pausing before speaking or acting, you create a habit of thinking first. And good habits are the keys to success.

The pause isn't only effective when dealing with upsetting situations. Often, we are tempted to jump on opportunities that look really good at the time but that we haven't really thought through. (It's one reason why impulse purchases have led millions into major credit card debt.)

Used effectively, the pause can help reduce those "What was I thinking?" moments.

How to Use the Pause Effectively

Using the pause may be as simple as stopping and thinking before we act or speak. If everyone made that a practice, imagine how much shorter emails could be, how much time would be saved in meetings, and how many incendiary comments on social media would be eliminated. (For more on developing this habit, read my previous article These 3 Questions Will Immediately Improve Your Emotional Intelligence.)

When faced with an upsetting situation or the need to make a major decision, you could use the pause this way:

1. Stop. Resist the urge to take action (yell, make a passive-aggressive comment, or agree to any course or position).

2. Take a deep, long breath.

3. If possible, take a walk. 

At least 10 to 15 minutes is great; longer is even better.

Most of the first thoughts that come to you may be self-centered; this is both natural and completely OK, so let those thoughts come. But as soon as possible, try to focus your thinking on others.

For example, if you're upset, you can ask yourself questions like:

  • Why did the person act this way?
  • What situation or circumstances might the person be dealing with?
  • What negative consequences will I have to deal with if I act out?

When faced with a major decision, you can ask:

  • How will I feel about this in a week? How about a year? How about five years?
  • How will the people I'm close to feel about the consequences of this decision--in the near future as well as long term?

By taking the time to think things through, you'll find that your reaction is much different than it would have been.

4. Write it down.

If you feel that the pause was especially beneficial in this situation, take a moment to write down your experience. Doing so allows you to reflect and helps ingrain the pause as a habit, so that it comes to you more naturally in the future.

The Proof

Here's a confession: I didn't just write this post for you. I did it for me.

This post is actually an end result of a pause I took a few days ago, when I (almost) overreacted to a request from my wife. At the time, I felt she was being unreasonable, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. (I was under a high amount of stress at the time, and was also behind on a deadline for a major project.)

Thankfully, I succeeded at the pause ... this time.

It led to multiple benefits, including:

  • A better understanding and appreciation of my wife, her situation, and a reminder of all she's done for me lately
  • Some much-needed fresh air, which made me more productive for the rest of the day
  • This post, which is actually a summary of the notes I made after everything was said and done

So, the next time you run into a similar situation, I implore you: Use the pause. Then, write it all down. Please share it with me if you like--I'd be happy to read it.

That way, we'll continue to learn from each other.