All relationships can experience gridlock when talking about a difficult topic. Relationships, whether it be a couple, friendship, parent-child, or family system, tend to have a familiar dance that plays out in communication and conflict. For example, a common dance is the pursue-retreat dynamic: a couple may start a conversation calmly, but over time one person starts to get emotionally overwhelmed and withdraws. The other partner notices the withdrawal and beings to pursue the conversation with more intensity. The withdrawn partner may now start to shut down emotionally or become passive aggressive. And so on and so forth.
We all can fall into a similar dance rhythm in conflict quite easily. It takes much more awareness and intentionality to notice the dance and choose to try something new. A really helpful way to step out of the dance is to take a time out. In the moment, it may feel risky or vulnerable to leave a conservation unresolved. In the long run, taking a time out sets both parties up for success in returning to the conversation when they have calmed down. Time outs work best when both people agree that using a time out could be helpful before a conversation gets heated. That mutual understanding in a calm moment allows for respect for the need in a difficult one.
If you are starting to feel frustrated, angry, more committed to winning than listening, triggered, may react violently from your anger, shut down, or emotionally flooded, you may need a time out. You may request a time out by saying something like, “I notice that I’m feeling really frustrated and having a hard time fully listening to you. Can we take a time out?” or simply, “I can’t talk about this anymore, I need to take a time out.” A time out can be a powerful tool to step out of the toxic dance and into a healthy one. Time outs allow both parties to calm down, notice their feelings, gather their thoughts, identify their needs, think about the other person’s perspective, and come back ready to re-engage.
A time out cannot merely be an avoidance of conflict or pushing off hard conversations indefinitely. If you call for a time out, it is your job to offer another time you can resume the conversation in a reasonable time frame, typically within a week. This allows each person to come emotionally and mentally prepared for the conservation. By following through with another time it also communicates respect and care, that the conversation and relationship is important.
In what relationship might you need to practice time outs for more fruitful conversation and connection?