The Power in the Gap

Between stimulus and response there is a gap.  The concept of the ‘gap’ keeps coming up in coaching sessions lately; it’s uncanny the way certain issue can keep reappearing like that.  So now I feel compelled to write about it.

Everything you do has a stimulus.  Even going to the fridge to get something to eat was likely stimulated by a message in your brain that your body is hungry for some energy, or maybe an advertisement that had you thinking about food.  For some people the stimulus is an emotional need and their usual response is to head to fridge/cupboard to grab something to eat.

The response can be very instinctual.  It can happen so automatically that the moment (the gap) between the stimulus and what you do in response isn’t even consciously registered.  This is what I encountered a lot of this week in coaching… people reacting so quickly to a feeling, or a comment, or a request (or perceived request) and on each of these occasions the response they gave wasn’t the most appropriate or the most useful.  It was just instinctual and habitual.

Not sure if you’ve been missing the gap?  If you are prone to doing a few or more of the following on more than a regular basis then it’s likely you’re practiced at ignoring the gap:

  • Talking over people before the other person has had a change to finish speaking
  • Responding immediately to what you decide people’s needs are before determining what they actually are
  • Going silent in the face of conflict (these people tend to have a ‘either/or’ mentality, i.e. Either respond quickly (and likely in a confronting or aggressive manner) or don’t respond at all.  These people often haven’t learned that there is third (or fourth, or fifth, etc) way to deal with the confrontation)
  • Avoiding confronting issues (these people tend to be like the people mentioned above)
  • Regularly getting into conflict with people
  • Impulse buying/eating/gossiping

Been missing the gap…

What’s your hurry?

I’m not saying you need to spend hours or days reflecting on the stimulus.  Taking 5 extra seconds may be all that is required to decide on a different response.

One of your costs of ignoring the gap is your personal power.  The gap is your moment of power.  It’s your opportunity to decide on the most appropriate response rather than instinctively reacting from the unconscious.  The gap is your moment to notice what you are doing and thinking and make it conscious.  Once conscious of it, you have the power to choose to do something differently.

So take a moment to stop.  It’s okay to pause.  It’s okay to have moments of silence.  It’s okay to let others wait for a moment just like it’s okay for you to wait if someone else needs a moment.

What I am suggesting is simple and often not easy because people who move that fast through the moment between stimulus and response are enacting a habit.  They have been doing it that way for longer than they remember.

Start with simple changes in easy situations – even situations where the outcome feels really unimportant.  I suggested to someone this week that the next time her daughter comes into the kitchen and asks her what’s for dinner, respond with ‘go back to doing your homework and I’ll be in there in five minutes and let you know’.  The objective here was to simply practice what it feels like ‘expanding the gap’.

Once that exercise has been tried on a few times, it can be tried on in situations with perceived higher stakes (like around an issues with a friend who continually triggers her defenses and causes conflict).  That next step may simply be expanding the gap with a question or two and an attitude of curiosity – just taking it all on as practice.

One of the greatest pieces of writing on this topic is by Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  It’s definitely worth a read if you keep missing the gap!

Much love,


Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.                                 – Viktor Frankl


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