Human Animals Pause

Human Animals Pause

August 16, 2020 News

Ronald Heifetz, JFK School of Government at Harvard.

Heifetz would drive people crazy, when…

He would p-a-u-s-e






1…..2…..3 seconds. You could almost hear the students’ collective unconscious crying out, “for God’s sakes, man, teach!”

I’m speaking of Ronald Heifetz, the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, whose content and unorthodox style of teaching awakened me – and thousands in the decades since – to the study of leadership. As I reflect back, I think Heifetz’s pause was driven by his mixed motives. I’d guess 10% flowed from his just being new to teaching; 50% was the result of his training as a psychiatrist who thrives upon creating and utilizing silence; and 40% was an intentional teaching device.

Heifetz’s device let us catch up mentally to what he was saying – as well as to our own racing minds. And perhaps most important, the disquieting quiet let us see:

  • How passive and dependent we were as students-followers
  • How much we wanted him to do the work – be the expert, tell us the truth, resolve all tensions, and
  • Increasingly, over the course of the semester, how we aspiring leaders could use his painful pauses as moments to get to what he would call “the balcony,” where we could observe and question in real-time what was happening, i.e., exactly what is leadership…now?

Now, you and I are in a major societal – even global – PAUSE.  A splendid chance to observe. Here is what I’m seeing.  The animal parts of our brains (amygdala and limbic systems) work lightning fast. Make a loud clap behind someone’s head, or lunge at someone, and you’ll see this speedy animal brain at work. But this part of the brain also is adapted to defend not just our bodies but our psychological bodies, which we might call our “identities.” So, what happens when someone assails your identity?  What if you hear someone say something about “your” people, like “you know those [Jews, Catholics, millennials, Blacks, Liberals, Feminists, accountants, lawyers…]. What happens? Your ears perk up, your blood pressure ticks up, and your basic defense mechanisms will light up like a Christmas tree. Say, “Trump,” in a crowded theater and the whole place will go on alert. “Is the speaker friend or foe?”

One no less an observer of humans, Victor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz and three other concentration camps, wrote what I take to be the most insightful statement about human awareness and human growth that has ever been written: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” One must slow.  Pause.  To create awareness. Then choice.

I believe that 95% of the hurt I have done to myself (in a car, on a court, in response to a sibling, spouse, or child) and to others would have been avoided if I had practiced the pause, created that “space between stimulus and response.”  

One thing that is helping me, is I am growing a foundation of thought which realizes that although I often feel a sense of urgency, there is almost NEVER a practical basis for it. That old limbic brain acts like everything is urgent all the time. So, like a knee struck by the doctor’s mallet, I react, rather than pause and respond.  I feel as if I must prove myself, defend myself, accomplish, be great – answer that email, write that column, respond to that push-back, defend myself before I even know what my “attacker” means.

I believe it was Tara Brach whose words I transcribed a couple weeks ago:   “The sense of urgency seems to act like oil on the fire of a needful ego. And in turn the needful ego is ever-mindful of urgency/emergency appearing. It’s a bad limbic cycling.” The pause is the way to stop the cycling!

Is the rush – back to school, back to games, back to full employment – really necessary? Will a child really “lose a year” for example, as I keep reading over and over again? If a parent misses a call, will the business really have to either fire them or go into bankruptcy? The urgencies are seldom real, and whether they are or aren’t, they mess with the best parts of our brain and body; we go into fight/flight, tensing and constricting, and just not thinking well.

The best way to pause is to pause.  Breathe in for 3 counts. Hold for 3 counts. Exhale for 6 counts. It’s not a great strategy if a leopard or a semi is “bearing” down on you, but how often in your entire life has that happened?

You won’t just help yourself with that breath, you’ll

Lead with your best self.  

About the author

Dan Mulhern: Dan Mulhern is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of leadership and organizational culture.