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Short-Circuiting Conflicts: The Time Out Communication Technique

Differences of opinion, perspectives, and strategies are part of life. No two people agree on everything. Many families have not yet developed conflict resolution skills, so children don’t always learn them at home. School curriculum may not include lessons on how to resolve disagreements. If you don’t learn how to settle conflicts at home or school, your ability to get along well with others could be seriously hampered. This could especially be true if someone with a controlling personality is involved.

Whenever you watch a sport such as football, basketball, or baseball, occasionally team members become angry about some play or ruling that seemed to be unfair. What happens when players get into a brawl? The referees or umpires call a “Time Out” to stop the game. Members of each team are separated and sent to their respective benches. At first, the players are agitated about the incident that started the brawl. They may let off some steam, and then they cool off. When they have calmed down, they get refocused onto the game, decide their next play, and resume the game.

When you find yourself being pulled into a heated argument with someone, the Time Out Communication Technique can help you to short-circuit the conflict and prevent it from getting out of hand. Here’s how it works.

When you notice that either you or the other person is getting upset, say, “I need a Time Out. I want to discuss this issue with you, but now is not a good time.” Do NOT say, “You’re being a jerk! You need a Time Out!”, because that would make things worse.

At this point, one person might just shut down the conversation and leave, which could feel like a hit-and-run wreck where nothing is resolved. Sometimes one person insists on continuing and finishing the argument right then, and follows the person who asked for the Time Out. This likely would also escalate the conflict.

Here is where the Time Out Communication Technique can be effective. After the Time Out is called and before you and the other person separate, agree on a date and time to get back together to calmly address the issue again. You could meet back in 30 minutes, in 24 hours, or next Saturday at 2 pm. Agreeing on a later time to resume the conversation actually creates a safe emotional space that prevents explosions.

If you usually tend to insist on finishing the conversation “right now”, instead go and write down everything that you want to say to the other person. It might be messy and include some choice words. Once you calm down, rewrite what you want to say in a respectful, diplomatic manner, similar to how you’d like for that person to speak to you. Remember, the goal is that you both actually hear and listen to each other, so respectful dialogue is crucial for you both to be heard.

Then you meet at the agreed time with the intention of truly listening and speaking respectfully to each other and actually hearing the other person’s message. Breathe deeply before, during, and after the conversation in order to help you remain calm. You don’t have to agree with each other. The Time Out Communication Technique helps you to understand each other’s perspective. This can be a starting point to work through disagreements in a mature, respectful manner. If you need more assistance in resolving conflicts, please call me for an appointment at 512.687.3436


~Linda Eldredge, Ed.D., Psychologist

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