10 Elephants


Yesterday, we discussed the benefits of scripting out a challenging conversation before it occurs. Today, we will discuss the importance of the conversational pause.

Almost everyone that you talk to has a different response time. We typically take it for granted the person that we are talking to has the same verbal response time that we do. In most situations, there is a natural conversational rhythm and ideas are easily exchanged with our conversational partner. If we engage in challenging conversations, conversations that require intense problem solving or if we are communicating with someone that has difficulty with receptive language, our conversational partner may need an increased verbal response time. The Hannen program for facilitating language for preschoolers encourages parents to allow “10 elephants” or 10 seconds for verbal response time. Not everyone needs a full “10 elephants”. The average response time is actually 7 to 10 seconds.  Once we understand that others may need up to 10 seconds to respond to a challenging question or conversation, we will start allowing enough space for others to respond. After we have given someone sufficient time to respond, it would then be appropriate to re-state the question or problem in a different way.

I will use myself as an example. When my wife and I are engaged in our typical conversations about our day, neither of us are conscious of any conversational pauses. However, when we start discussing issues that require problem solving, my wife has noted that I need up to “7 elephants” to respond. I am thankful for this conversational space. During this pause, I am able to use all of my working memory to work on the problem. Often, when I am interrupted during this time of pondering, my thought process will be derailed and I may need to start my thinking over. I am fortunate that the majority of the people that I interact with understand my conversational style.

My wife offered her conversational experience as another example (yes she reads this blog and she has given me her permission to discuss her conversational preferences). My wife feels that she often gives other people only “3 elephants” to respond. When she does not receive a quick response (3 elephants or less) she may feel that people are not listening to her. My wife is aware that she will provide more response time to children than she would for adults. When my wife is in a period of increased stress and increased responsibility, she realizes that she has fewer elephants for everyone.

Since we cannot control the responses of our conversational partners, it is best to reflect on our own conversational processing needs. If you need a full 7 to 10 seconds to respond, it would be beneficial to communicate this with your conversational partner. For example, to indicate that you are still participating in the conversation while processing your response, you could simply state “let me think about that” or offer a pre-determine gesture such as holding one finger up or nodding. If you know that you have a very quick response time, one strategy would be to simply count elephants when you are experiencing an uncomfortable pause.

When listening to jazz, blues or classical music, the spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves. When having a sophisticated conversation, the space between ideas can almost be as important to the flow of the conversation.

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One Comment to “10 Elephants”

  1. There is a term I like to use in relation to this great article you gave us here – comfortable silence. Some people are very uncomfortable in silence and fill each second with some kind of “noise”…noise to silence facing the chattering of their own minds. I think a lot of people are afraid of silence.

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