Take a Break Before Responding

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 you.

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?"

"Yes. Hello."

"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."

"What time?"

"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 hour?"

"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 soon."


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 moment.

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.


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 century society.

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.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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