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The Pause

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This post is part of a series on Cultivating Leadership Presence through Mindfulness. The series will culminate in a four-day mindful leadership retreat in New York in October 2013. For more information, visit http://www.mindfulleadership.com/.

I am angry. My whole body is angry. I feel my pulse in my throat, I feel my blood pressure in my head, my teeth are grinding, my breath is shallow and I have trouble keeping my voice level as I speak into the speakerphone.

"Forgive me for a second, I need to step out. Will be back in a minute, sorry!"

"No problem," says one of my clients and my colleague takes over the discussion as I look at my email. There, just arrived, is a message from another client with the subject, "Where are you? We are on the conference line waiting for you..." It might as well have been written in blood -- my blood.

I am angry and frustrated and helpless. I don't "feel" angry -- I am angry. It is 2:00 p.m. and I have been on the phone since 8:00 a.m. There are dozens of emails in my inbox but I have not had a chance to even glance at them. I have not had either breakfast (I am on a weird diet that does not deserve attention here) nor lunch (no time). I have had four cups of coffee. My office is hot; the AC is not working well (I am angry at the super). Every call I had consisted of things I need to do; things that clients expect of me. Everybody expects something from me...

Now I am DOUBLE-BOOKED! I feel like my day is a house of cards and I just saw somebody reach down and say, "Hey let me look at this Jack of Spades here at the bottom..."

I am angry and I hit the "new email" button and start thinking of something very angry and very professional to say to my colleague who sets up my appointments. This is his fault and my schedule being crammed like that is his fault... My being hungry is his fault , since he left me no time for lunch (I asked him to book the 12:00, but that's not the point...). Hundreds of ways to scald my colleague, each more coldly, professionally angry than the other, spin through my head and accelerate. Every next version of the sentence gets more and more poisonous. Hitting send on this email is going to be like letting out an angry roar.

And then, I pause...

We often think of our bodies as vessels that carry our consciousness around. We think of the body as the car, in which the brain and our thoughts travel around. We think of brain and body as separate and very different, but they are not. The body is not just our vessel -- it is part of who we are. Our thoughts are not some higher form of existence that is pure and untarnished -- our brain "sweats and drools" as much as our body does. Stress is not just a state of mind; it is a state of the body.

Where does the anger come from? Does it come from the self-righteous frustration with a colleague or does it come from a starved body trying to signal its needs? Does it come from an over-caffeinated nervous system trying to say "Enough!" Perhaps an overheated and uncomfortable torso, sweating in a chair? Who is typing the angry email, the busy but constructive (really?) CEO or the frustrated, overheated animal that is feeling a little scared and overwhelmed by its environment? How do we know which is it?

We pause...

The pause is the difference between the action and the reaction, between the thoughtless lash out of the frustrated animal and the thoughtful action that fits the moment. Our bodies react, they are designed that way. Our minds are part of that system, they are part of the reaction. What we need though is an action -- not a reaction.

If you watch sports you have seen it many, many times: At the moment of highest pressure, when the game is on the line, the player goes through their little ritual. They bounce the ball three times, no more, no less; they wipe their forehead with the left hand; they take five deep breaths; they shake their arms in a limbering motion; they loosen their neck and their jaw; they touch their toes and relax their back... and then they explode into action. They serve the ball, they shoot the free-throw, they kick the penalty kick, they jump at the starting signal. Why do they do those little rituals?

It is the pause before the action, the chance to calm body and mind and focus them on the purpose. A little ritual meant to slow the breathing, relax the muscles, decelerate the heart-beat, quiet the hyper-chatter of the mind so that all body and all mind can find the right action for the moment and be as focused and as capable as they can be. As Janice Marturano taught us during her "Mindful Leadership" retreat, the pause is the difference between the reaction and the action. I attended the retreat a couple of years ago and ever since try to hold on to the "practice" of mindfulness that I learned there. Trust me, it is not easy but makes all the difference.

I never sent that email. What good would it do? It will only anger a valuable colleague with words I will likely later regret. Chances are this was my omission to begin with and not something he did. It will do nothing to address the situation at hand. It will be the mindless lash out that will not improve anything. I close my eyes and I try to breathe as slowly as I can without holding my breath and count to 10. Then I return to my call and apologize profusely that I have to leave and explain that I have made a mistake. The client has no problem with it since my colleague has capably taken over the discussion, anyway. Then I pause again for a second to silently thank my colleague for her help and then dial into the other call. It will all work out...

Philip Palaveev is the CEO of The Ensemble Practice LLC, a business consulting firm specialized in working with top wealth management firms. Philip is the author of the book "The Ensemble Practice" and frequently writes articles on issues of management and strategy facing privately owned service firms.