When emotions are on the rise in a conflict or argument, attempts to resolve the situation can often become counter-productive. In the heat of an intense discussion, we are prone to resort to maladaptive behaviors like yelling, blaming, stonewalling, or avoiding. These behaviors make it even more difficult for productive communication and understanding to take place.This is when it is important to call a Time Out so that the conversation does not unravel and become destructive. A Time Out is an opportunity to cool off, regroup, and plan what and how to communicate thoughts, feelings, and expectations. However, it is important to have ground rules to make the Time Out most effective.
TIME OUT RULES
- Anyone can bring up any issue at anytime. There are rarely going to be perfect times to talk about the hard things. If you are always waiting for the “right time” to bring up issues, the conversations will get backlogged and many of them may never get discussed. So it is important to initiate discussions as early as is appropriate and possible.
- Anyone can call a Time Out at anytime. It is normal for emotions to get heated as miscommunication, misunderstandings, and unmet expectations unpack. Everyone gets frustrated, angry, and defensive at times and defaults into unhelpful patterns of conflict. When this happens, it is time to call a Time Out.
- Agree on a maximum Time Out limit. Follow up is key to resolving the conflict. A Time Out is not an opportunity to get out of talking about the hard things. It is essential to always circle back around to the conversation and try to come to a resolution. My recommendation is having a 24 hour Time Out limit. This gives ample time for both parties to sleep on the issue, process, seek advice from a mentor, and so forth, before coming back to the conversation. You do not have to use the full 24 hour time limit. If after a couple hours you are ready and able to re-engage in the productive conversation, that’s great! The time limit is there to prevent conflicts from going unresolved for days, weeks, months, and years.
- Engage in calming and relaxing activities during the Time Out. This may seem intuitive, but often times when we come out of an intense conversation or argument and tend to replay the events in our heads, dwell on the things that made us most upset, or rehearse further arguments in our imaginations. This only serves to circumvent the purpose of the Time Out because it heightens the negative emotions already present. So be intentional with how you spend the Time Out. Practice activities that are distracting and self-soothing for you.
- Whoever called the Time Out calls Time In. It is important to respect one another’s request for Time Out. When the person who called the Time Out is ready to pick up the conversation, it is their responsibility to let the other person know—whether it is in two hours or twenty hours. However, if the person who did not call the Time Out feels they still need time before jumping back into the conversation, then they are free to ask for another Time Out, in which it would then be their responsibility to notify the other person when they are ready to talk.
- Use some form of Structured Communication. In sensitive discussions it is helpful to use a type of structured communication, such as the Speaker-Listener Technique. Structured Communication is aimed at giving both parties the chance to express their points of view in order to increase understanding and consensus.
- Repeat as needed. Some topics are more emotionally charged than others, and therefore, may require multiple Time Outs and Time Ins, in order to fully work through the conversation.
Communication can be messy and hard, but these rules can help you make the most of your Time Outs by giving you the space that you need to deal with emotions and order your thoughts.