A Tool for Nonprofit CEOs: The Power of Pause
For the almost decade that I served as a nonprofit CEO, it wasn’t uncommon for my days to be jam-packed with meetings, phone calls, or impromptu conversations with team members from the moment I walked into the office until the end of the work day.
The challenge of days like this isn’t just that they leave you exhausted and drained (though that’s real!). It’s also that the energy or stress of each meeting doesn’t go away after the meeting ends, and can easily seep into your next one in ways that can create real problems.
To demonstrate this dynamic, I invited participants in a recent workshop for nonprofit CEOs to get into pairs and talk about something that had frustrated them. Then – quickly – I asked them to shift to a topic that brought them joy or excitement. Their conversation partners were asked to share what they observed in the second part of the conversation when their partner was talking about something positive:
- “She seemed upset – even when she was talking about something that I knew she was happy about.”
- “His body language felt out of sync with what he was saying.”
- “I felt bad for her – it didn’t seem like she could enjoy the thing that she was talking about being happy about.”
Their conversation partners were witnessing what is a natural, human response. The energy from the topic of frustration bled into the way that they communicated about something exciting or joyful. They couldn’t help it. And it was palpable and observable to others.
This is a real and challenging dynamic for any human. But for CEOs, the stakes are so much higher.
- Have you had conversations where you felt misunderstood or like you just couldn’t communicate what you wanted others to hear from you?
- Have you ever been completely surprised to find out that a team member thought that you were irritated with them, based on the way they experienced you in a conversation?
- Have you at times felt your thoughts drifting to a frustrating email or interaction from earlier in the day when you needed to be present for the high-stakes conversation you were in?
As these scenarios illustrate, carrying the energy from one interaction to another can challenge our leadership effectiveness and create real problems. The good news is, there’s a fairly straightforward “fix” that can disrupt this destructive flow of energy and help us “clear” our energy in a way that enables us to align our presence with our intentions.
All it takes is an intentional pause.
In my work as a leadership coach to nonprofit and foundation CEOs, I often work with my clients to cultivate a practice of pausing – between meetings, in advance of important conversations, before heading home to their spouse or partner (yes, this matters at home too!). Sometimes, leaders are resistant to building a pause practice, thinking some version of “I don’t have time to pause.” But the practice of pausing doesn’t have to take a long time; even 30 seconds of deep and intentional breathing can make a huge difference.
And it’s observable.
In the exercise with this group of CEOs, there was a second phase of the activity, which we completed before reflecting on the experience. In this second phase, I once again invited participants to share with a conversation partner something they were frustrated about and then something they were excited or joyful about. But in between, instead of going straight from one topic to the next, we all took a short, 30-second pause to take four “box breaths.”
Their conversation partners noticed the difference:
- “He seemed genuinely calm and excited, which was really different from the first time around.”
- “It felt like she was actually talking about the thing that she was excited about, instead of something else. It felt aligned.”
- “It felt like I was talking to a different person.”
The power of the pause is real.
- It gives us space to become present to the people and priorities in front of us.
- It helps ensure that the people around us – and we ourselves – benefit from our clarity, thoughtfulness, and care.
- And it makes it possible for us to align our practice of leadership with our intentions.
Curious about what the power of pause could do for you and your leadership? Consider this an invitation to try it out today!