One Mississippi, Two Mississippi


“During conversations, she is given to taking lengthy pauses,” a New Yorker profile of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes.

“This can be unnerving, especially at the Supreme Court, where silence only amplifies the sound of ticking clocks. Therefore, her clerks came up with what they call the two-Mississippi rule: after speaking, wait two beats before you say anything else. Ginsburg’s pauses have nothing to do with her age. It’s just the way she is.”

Every school would benefit immensely from the application of the two-Mississippi rule in classrooms, meetings for learning and decision making, and one-to-one conversations.

The two-Mississippi rule would slow down conversations in ways that would allow both speakers and listeners to more thoughtfully consider what was said and to explore more fully the chain of associations and ideas that are evoked.

In my experience, important professional learning often occurs in an unlikely place—the space between the conclusion of one person speaking and another person responding, a space in which speakers may choose to revise or extend what they said and listeners can ponder the implications of what was said for the topic at hand.

In the classroom this pause is known as “wait time.” Teachers who regularly practice it report that it produces greater engagement and higher-quality responses from a larger number of students.

When the two-Mississippi rule is in place listeners can give their full attention to what is being said rather than rehearsing their responses while the person is still speaking, which means they will comprehend at a deeper level. If the subject matter is particularly important or evokes strong emotion, it might be desirable to upgrade the two-Mississippi rule to the four-Mississippi or even six-Mississippi rule.

One consequence of applying the two-Mississippi rule would be more frequent and profound conversation-based professional learning.

Another consequence would be stronger, more respectful relationships as educators slowed down the fast-paced, often less-than-satisfying exchanges that fill their busy days.

Like wait-time in classrooms, the two-Mississippi rule a simple, yet powerful strategy whose only cost is the effort required to establish it as a habit.

Applying the two-Mississippi rule is a “small action” that can have a profound effect on learning, relationships, and the overall effectiveness of the school community.

I encourage you to give it a try at the very next opportunity.

5 Responses to “One Mississippi, Two Mississippi”

  1. 1 barbarawmadden March 21, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Having been raised in the Magnolia State, I highly recommend this idea! I speak Mississippi-machine-gun style and too often forget the importance of listening!

  2. 2 @davidfifevp March 21, 2013 at 7:23 am

    One of the most powerful teaching experiences I experienced was with giving a student ample “wait time.” It was very early in my teaching career and this particular student had a difficult time composing his thoughts, to the point where I assumed he was just not pay attention at all. It seemed he was more concerned with playing with his ruler, his pencil case, or whatever was near his hands. I was determined to find out if he was really paying attention one day after learning more about wait time. Sure enough, it may have felt like minutes to the class, and myself, but my friend responded thoughtfully to a question I had posed. It turns out he needed the wait time and something physical to get his thoughts composed. From that moment on I made it a point to give as much time as possible to all my students.

    Thanks for writing about this very important topic Dennis.

    • 3 Dennis Sparks March 21, 2013 at 7:27 am

      And thanks, David, for providing this wonderful example of the power of wait time combined with careful listening.

  3. 4 Mike Phillips March 21, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    I am often guilty of having 100 an I things to get done and feeling rushed. Recently, I’ve felt overwhelmed with workload. Dennis, thanks for this post! Starting tomorrow, I am going to slow down my conversations and apply the 2 Mississippi Rule to improve the quality of my interactions with staff, students, parents and my own family. This goal is more important than checking off my to-do list. This will be my focus. Thank you for taking your time to write and share your thoughts.

    • 5 Dennis Sparks March 21, 2013 at 9:41 pm

      Good for you, Mike… What a wonderful goal! I am confident that both you and those with whom you interact will benefit as you begin to develop this new habit.

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