This post is an excerpt from my book Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection not Perfection. It’s a tiny practice that really helps me listen better, manage anxiety and give people room to grow and be.
The Difference of Seventeen Seconds
“Are you ever going to let me finish a sentence?!”
“Mom! I can do it myself!”
Why were the people I love getting mad at me? I was just trying to help, and hey, I’m not interrupting, I just thought they were done talking!
I really didn’t want to admit I was an interrupter. Then I read in The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts the that the average person doesn’t go more than seventeen seconds before interrupting the person talking.
Seventeen measly seconds? Really? I certainly wasn’t that bad. . . .
I decided to find out. I started by trying out waiting seventeen seconds during conversations with my husband and my kids, counting silently to seventeen before speaking my thoughts . . . and oh dear. I was shocked at how often I was ready to interrupt during that first seven seconds, let alone seventeen seconds. I discovered that frequently when I think one of my family members is done talking, he or she is actually just taking a breath or needing time to think before answering.
Encouraged by how powerful this pause was in conversations, I began to use seventeen seconds as a waiting time when I saw one of my kids struggle. Resisting the urge to jump in to fix something or give a suggestion, I waited. How could it be that in only seventeen seconds so much could happen?
The Beauty of a Noninterruption
One day we were sitting together as my kids worked on some intricate Lego structures and one of my sons got really frustrated about a mistake.
My brain desperately wanted me to say, “Would you like some help?”
But I remembered my seventeen-seconds plan and my mouth was quiet. One. Two. Three. Four. . . .
He started to get more loud and frustrated about his task, but he kept at it.
I kept counting. Eight. Nine. Ten. . . .
My urge to rescue him was calming down as I realized my child needed this time to struggle with difficulties and to problem solve.
Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. . . .
“Mama—I think I can change this. I thought this was totally messed up, but I found a solution!”
Oh. Wow. If I had started in with a suggestion a few seconds earlier it would have robbed him of that moment!
Yup—seventeen measly seconds makes a big difference.
I am not completely “cured” of interrupting, but seventeen seconds is giving the people around me a chance to talk, and it’s giving me a chance not only to hear them but to let them show me how capable they really are—letting those strengths shine.
Your Assignment: Wait Seventeen Seconds.
- When you’ve asked a question, when you’re tempted to interrupt or when you’re tempted to help, solve or fix things, wait. Give them time to check in with themselves, time to think, time to develop their own solution. This supports them where they are and shows respect and love.
Alissa Zorn is an author, and founder of the website Overthought This. She's a coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa is certified through the International Coach Federation and got her Trauma-Informed Coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit. She wrote Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, and is always following curiosity to find her next creative endeavor.