Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Gift of Being Slow

I've been thinking a lot about the gift of being slow. . . slow to anger, slow to respond, slow to speak my mind. It's a bit countercultural in the sense that our contemporary culture is based on speed . . . getting things done fast, checking things off a list, driving the shortest route quickly, so that we can move to the next task, assignment or appointment.

The gift of being slow when responding to something that causes your emotions to flare is that the passage of time allows you to reflect on what has been said or done. You get to put things into perspective, so that the words or actions don't get blown out of proportion to what's true of the overall relationship.

If you take a mental step back, away from the immediacy of the words and actions, you also get the chance to reflect on the possibility that you may have misheard the words or misinterpreted the actions. It is possible that you just might be mistaken and that the immediate response you might have given would cause harm to the relationship.

One of my practices when I was working in a large banking organization was to slow down my response to requests from senior management. I had observed that a couple of my senior managers routinely asked for fact-finding reports, driven by their own immediate emotional response to a situation, and then they didn't utilize the information and on occasion, even questioned why the information was being sent to them.

Those senior managers were showing their concern and care about situations through the act of asking for those fact-finding reports. My deliberate slow response was my attempt not to react to those senior managers' anxiety and to utilize my limited staff resources responsibly. Obviously I was judicious in my slow responses, recognizing what was important vs. what was urgent and anxiety-laden, since being unresponsive to senior management could be a real career killer.

Recently, I have been exercising slowness in sharing my opinion about events and situations. (Thus, I have accumulated a number of posts that I've written but not posted right away. That's why suddenly I am posting several from seemingly out of nowhere.) I find that taking the time to reflect on what I want to say always yields more nuanced responses from me and more receptivity from the other. For me, I have noticed that the tone of my delivery is greatly enhanced by being slow to respond. I can usually avoid getting personal and being in attack mode. I am less pedantic and offer suggestions rather than solutions. I can share examples of when I had made a similar or the same gesture or mistake. I am more likely to see facets in what has transpired or been said, including sometimes the opposing views of the other.

You cannot know the mind of the other, but you can take some time to reflect on what might be motivating the words and actions of the other. Such reflection just might help you to see another side to the issue at hand. Such reflection just might help you to see how your part in the situation is interpreted by the other, and whether you are perceived as heaping fuel on the fire or helping to defuse an intense situation.

Ultimately, being slow to respond is about managing my own anxieties. It is easy to get pulled into the emotional content of the other's strongly held opinions, which sometimes get delivered in the form of angry outbursts or invectives and personal attacks. I don't like being called names or being accused of unbecoming behavior any more than anyone else.

However, as a leader, it is incumbent on me to discern the difference between the true content of the other's complaint or concern and the anxiety the other is expressing. My job as a leader is to respond to the content and not to the anxiety. Easier said than done, but worth thinking about and addressing with a genuine willingness to modify one's own behavior and responses.

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