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My Strategic Pause

pauseIt’s true. Every now and then, I get annoyed. I have a fairly long fuse but, when I get to the end of it, I become agitated, irritable, snarky, and overbearing.

I find that about half the time when I get to that stage, it’s because something external to me got me there. Another person gets my goat. Someone else screws up and I’m left holding the bag. A mechanical failure delays yet another flight and, no, I can’t get home tonight. As the saying goes, if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

If external factors cause about half of my annoyance attacks, where do the other half come from? Well …. from me. How do I know this? Because I keep track of my flaming e-mails. I live a lot of my life online. I process roughly 100 to 150 e-mails per day.

When I’m annoyed, I sometimes send flaming e-mails. It just feels good to send a self-righteous missive excoriating the recipient for innate stupidity. “Were you born stupid or is this a recent development?” About half the time, my analysis is correct (though my tactics are self-defeating). The other half of the time, I ultimately find out that my own stupidity caused the problem. I failed to check a box, or fill in a blank, or submit the paperwork on time and, therefore, it’s my fault. Then I really feel stupid.

So now when I get to the end of my rope, I take a strategic pause. That’s a fancy term that comes from the critical thinking world but it’s a technique that we all learned in grade school: count to ten before you start throwing fists.

Actually, I do more than count to ten. Here’s a summary of my thinking:

“OK, I’m really annoyed. I know that when I’m annoyed, I don’t always think clearly. I also know that about half the time when I’m annoyed, it’s my own damn fault. So, how am I going to figure out: a) who or what caused this annoyance; b) what I’m going to do about it? I might need some facts here.”

Then I turn to my “go-to” questions. I call them “go-to” questions because I’ve used them often enough that they’re always with me. I may forget the rules of logic, but I can always go to these questions. There are four of them. The first two are for me. I use the last two only after considering the first two and only if there is another person involved in the annoyance incident.

The first two are simply:

  • How do I know that?
  • Why do I think that?

By asking these two questions, I can go back to the beginning, recount the process that got me to where I got to, and decide whether I’m on firm ground or not. If not, I can start to make corrections. If I am on firm ground, I can ask the next two questions (of the other person):

  • How do you know that?
  • Why do you think that?

These questions have helped me avoid countless misunderstandings. I might say, “Why do you think that?” The other person might say, “Because you said XYZ.” I might then say, “Actually, I didn’t say XYZ. I said ZYX.” Rather than shooting first and asking questions later,  we can ask questions and perhaps avoid shooting altogether. It’s a simple approach that often stops an argument before it comes to a boil.

I’ve developed my go-to questions based on years of experience. I always advise my critical thinking students to develop their own go-to questions. In class, we often discuss which questions are most effective in a strategic pause. So, now you can help me teach my class. What are your most effective go-to questions?




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