A FRIEND TOLD ME she changed her mind about
a goal of hers. It had been important to her for a long time,
but she decided to change the goal. I listened and then told
her what I thought, off the top of my head.
But I hadn't really thought about it, and
she didn't like my response. If I'd thought about it, I would
have realized it was an important decision for her too
important to make casual off-hand remarks about. But I succumbed
to the normal social pressure to respond right away.
This chapter is about a simple social skill
that can have tremendous consequences: Take a break and think
before responding. The truth is, if you don't have to respond
immediately, it's usually better not to. When someone says something
to you or asks you for something, ask yourself, Do I have
to respond right now? If the answer is no, give yourself
some time to think about it. This policy is better for everyone
in the long run. Drill this question into your mind so it comes
to you easily and quickly.
This question is an important one, because
it puts you in better control of your own life. Did you know
that salespeople hate hearing potential customers say, "I'll
think about it." Why do they hate it so much? Because when
most people think about it, they decide against it.
Sure, when the salesperson is right there
singing the praises of something, and you've got all the pros
dancing in your head and none of the cons, it looks good. Plus
you have the social pressure of the salesperson really wanting
you to buy it. So although it's a good time to make a decision
that's good for the salesperson, it's not a good time to make
a decision that's right for you. Do you have to respond
immediately? No. Give yourself some time. Do what's best for
That's true with salespeople, and it's
true with a request your child makes of you, and with an answer
your spouse wants you to give, and when your mother-in-law wants
you to do something. You hardly ever need to respond immediately.
But it often feels like you do, doesn't it? It's social pressure.
Of course it's probably better for the other person if you respond
immediately, but that's not usually a very good reason to do
it. Especially if it isn't good for you.
"Hi is this John?"
"Hi. This is Janet. Sorry to call
you so late, but I really need to ask you a favor. Tomorrow morning,
I have to take an early flight and I need a ride to the airport."
"The plane leaves at 6:05."
John is on the spot. It seems like he has
to respond immediately, and of course Janet would like him to,
but he doesn't have to. Unless he knows for sure the answer is
yes or no, he ought to give himself time to think. It's sometimes
hard to do, but even if you stumble through it, you're still
giving yourself time to decide on your own, free from the pressure
of someone waiting for your answer.
"I'll tell you what, Janet. I need
a little time to think about this. Can I call you back in a half
"Well...sure. I know it is short notice.
I'm sorry about that. But, yes, think about it, and I'll be up
for at least the next half hour."
"Okay. I'll call you. Talk to you
John bought himself some time to consider
what would be best for him. Is Janet a good friend, or does he
want her to be a good friend? How inconvenient will it
be for him? Does Janet reciprocate? Or does she only take and
not give back? Even thinking it through on his own for five minutes,
he'll make a better decision than he would on the spur of the
I'll bet most of the time you've ever made
a bad decision, it was something you didn't think about. For
many of us, myself included, I was never really taught how to
think. Do you know what you're supposed to do when someone
says, "Think about it?"
Thinking about something, as in "thinking
it over," is best done by asking questions about the likely
results of different actions. So thinking means to think of a
possible solution and then think about the possible results of
that solution. Then think of another possible solution and think
about the results of that. And after considering these things,
then you can make a good decision. If you're thinking about whether
you ought to take the new promotion in another town or stay where
you are, for example, you need to ask questions: Will I get another
opportunity? Or is this once in a lifetime? How will a new town
affect my life? Is it worth losing what I have the friends,
etc.? Do I like adventure? Think about the results or consequences
of your actions.
APPLIED TO ARGUMENTS
A few weeks ago, my wife and I got into
an argument. We were angry with each other. I was on my way out
the door go for a walk when it started, and I decided to go for
my walk before we tried to resolve any more. When I got back,
we worked it out smoothly and quickly because we'd had
time to think about it. If we had tried to resolve it at the
time it happened, it would probably have been a long, painful
argument like we often had when we first got married, because
in the flush of anger, "working it out" only means
one thing: Making the other person see how wrong they are (or
how right you are).
In our twenty-one years of marriage, the
single most difficult lesson I've had to learn is to refrain
from trying to resolve an argument immediately. For some things
in life, the harder you try, the less likely you'll get
what you are trying for. The more urgent or insistent you are,
the deeper into the argument you sink, until eventually you can't
get out, or even remember what you were arguing about!
You've probably heard about the feud between
the Hatfields and the McCoys. Both sides had been killing each
other for generations. According to Napoleon Hill, who grew up
in the backwoods of Virginia and knew both families, the whole
thing started with a pig that wandered into a neighbor's yard,
and the neighbor set his dog after it. That was the beginning
of the feud!
The more urgent and insistent you are about
resolving an argument, the deeper you sink.
When you're upset, when your heart is pounding,
and your face is flushed with blood, your mind isn't thinking
at it's highest level. The centers of your brain responsible
for dispassionate, accurate, rational thought are overridden
by the parts of your brain that can only think in terms of survival:
Defend, attack, run, hide. And those modes are not good for working
out differences between two people in modern, civilized, twenty-first
You don't have to respond right away. I know it feels like you do, but that's
because your brain is running on Survival Mode. Interrupt it.
Take a break. Go in the other room. Go for a walk. The relationship
will be there in an hour if it won't, it wasn't much of
a relationship to begin with.
The other person might not want you to
leave. They might follow you out the door, trying to keep you
talking. They are in Survival Mode too, and they feel the need
to work things out immediately. Assure them it'll be a short
break, and then you'll talk about it. Say to them, "I need
to cool off and think about this because I'm not thinking so
clearly right now."
It may take some trials and failures to
remember to take a break during an argument (and exert the discipline
to actually do it), but when a person learns this simple skill,
it takes a lot of the destructiveness out of arguments.
Of course, it's possible that when you
come back after a break, the argument erupts and you stop being
rational again (or the other person does). Take another
break, even if you have to do this for two weeks, it's better
for the relationship than trying to work it out in an irrational
state of mind.
You and I are animals. We have responses
we maybe wish we didn't have. We didn't design our nervous system,
and it didn't evolve to make us happy. And our endocrine system
didn't evolve to survive in our modern world.
Let's be responsible for it. I don't mean
"it's our fault." Let's be "responsible"
for it in the same way if you have bad eyesight, you take responsibility
for it and wear glasses or contacts. You don't try to wish it
away or pretend it's not there. It is the way it is. There's
nothing you can do about it other than adapt yourself to the
reality of it. Taking a break when you feel insane is a way to
adapt to the biological reality of your body.
The principle is very simple, but has excellent
results: You don't have to respond right away, regardless
of what your body feels.
When you don't need to respond
right away, take a break and think it through.