Communication Skills That Work: Ten Ways Pauses Improve Understanding

The pause can become your best communication friend. Use it. Become a clearer, more charismatic communicator as you speak less and pause more, whether in one-to-one conversations or talking to a whole room. Never underestimate the impact of a brief hiatus. Learn to embrace the rhythms of speech, and make use of those silent moments.

Here’s how:
• Pause to allow your listener to catch up. Always think of your listener’s angle. Research shows that both children and adults understand best when your speed is moderate and you pause several times a minute. Remember that your ideas are familiar to you. You already know what you’re about to say, while it’s all new to your conversation partner. He needs decoding time.

• Pause even more when you talk to a bigger audience. Everyone in the room has extra distractions all around her and she needs extra time to take in your words. She has to hear them clearly, blocking out the man next to her when he sniffs or coughs. She needs to to remember each word long enough to extract its meaning, teasing out your grammatical markers, like word endings, and word order in the sentences. The bigger the audience, the longer your pauses should be.

• Pause to make sure you choose the best word for clarity, accuracy and to avoid offense. Notice how an excellent speaker feels comfortable when she stops and thinks, while her listener waits, breathless, until she selects exactly the right word. A nervous or careless speaker who talks vaguely and dully about ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ quickly loses your attention.

• Pause to let the other person speak. Unless you’re a politician with just one minute to deliver your sound bite, be polite. Let your conversation partner have his say. Listen to what he says during your pause and take account of it in your response. Have you ever met someone known as the life and soul of the party who tells strings of jokes and stories without stopping to interact with you? It doesn’t take long for you to want to get away from him, does it?

• Pause to let the other person think. If he stops to find the right word, give him time. Chances are, it’ll be worth waiting for. If you interrupt, you’ll never know.

• Pause after an important phrase to let your words sink in. President Obama always followed “Yes, we can!” with a pause. Rushing straight on to your next point destroys the moment.

• Pause to make sure your audience is listening and to check their reactions. Stopping for a second gives you time to register body language. It allows to see whether your conversation partner is nodding along in agreement, or gazing over your shoulder to find someone more interesting.

• Pause to review what you just said and check where you need to add clarity. As you use your pauses to watch your partner or your audience, notice frowns or puzzled expressions. Maybe you need to add a few words, or ask a question, to help with understanding.

• Pause to gain your audience’s attention even before you begin a speech. Walk to your place, stop, look around the room and count to five, then begin. This shows that you are completely in control and adds to your charisma. You may feel nervous, and you gain time to breathe out and then in, ready to go. Practice it at home.

• Pause often during difficult conversations. A therapist often uses pauses to allow her client to think, react and review the topic. Use a pause with your child, friend or partner, giving him space to express himself honestly and sincerely. You may be surprised at the results.

More communication skills posts you may find useful:

Communication Skills That Work: Ten Tips on Dealing with Angry People

How To Make Positive Suggestions and Improve Your Child’s Behaviour: Communication Skills That Work

How to Give Advice: Communication Skills That Work

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills: Ten Best Tips for Better Understanding

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Frances Evesham: on the run around Europe for years, with only a husband, three children and a succession of opinionated cats to keep me out of trouble. Somerset stopped me in my tracks. Now I walk in the country and breathe sea air. I will get around to cleaning the house soon.

I've been a speech therapist, a professional communication fiend and a road sweeper. I sometimes work in the criminal courts to uphold fair questioning of people with special needs.

I smell the roses, lavender and rosemary as I cook with a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of chillies in the other. Writing historical romances and books on communication leaves enough time to enjoy bad jokes and puns and wish I’d kept on with the piano lessons.