Know when to pause…

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on June 29th, 2012

From the Financial Times comes this fascinating observation about athletes… and comedians:

Watch Novak Djokovic. His advantage over the other professionals at Wimbledon won’t be his agility or stamina or even his sense of humour. Instead, as scientists who study superfast athletes have found, the key to Djokovic’s success will be his ability to wait just a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball. That tiny delay is why most players won’t have a chance against him. Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate– at the speed of light.

During superfast reactions, the best-performing experts in sport, and in life, instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second. The same is true over longer periods: some of us are better at understanding when to take a few extra seconds to deliver the punchline of a joke, or when we should wait a full hour before making a judgment about another person. Part of this skill is gut instinct, and part of it is analytical. We get some of it from trial and error or by watching experts, but we also can learn from observing toddlers and even animals. There is both an art and a science to managing delay.

We love the phrase “managing delay.” We have observed that the vast majority of neophytes are particularly bad at managing delay. It is entirely understandable. We suspect that it is because silence is terrifying. Unless you’re saying something, making some sort of noise, there is silence… and silence, it is believed, is an invitation to the random audience member to chime in with his own contribution. That random audience member would be known as a “heckler.”

Of course, we need not fear the silence. There are ways– some subtle, some not so– to claim the silence for our own, to make it clear that we own the “conversation.” We can make it clear– verbally and non-verbally– that we’re engaging in a monologue, not a dialogue. And, on those rare occasions when some folks don’t get the hint, we need not respond immediately. In fact, waiting (hesitating, pausing, delaying, etc.) may be (to some, it seems, paradoxically) the best way of establishing our control over the situation.