Honey, We Need to Go to Time-out

By Dr. Bert Pitts

Communicating through conflict requires that the couple pay close attention to the emotional “temperature” between them. Maintaining dialogue (two-way communication) is crucial. Both people have to share honestly, and both have to be heard, which requires that both closely listen (which is more difficult for most than is talking). Dialogue can only happen in a free, voluntary, non-coercive context. Either person needs to have the ability to withdraw from the discussion, if they begin to feel threatened, hurt, angry, or uncomfortable in any other way. Thus, either party can call for a “time-out” in the discussion, which must be respected by the other party. However, Dr. Pitts offers the following guidelines for the time-out period:

  • Whoever calls for the time-out can take as much time they need to regain a sense of calm and control.
  • There is no set length for the time-outs from discussion, but the party calling for the time-out should be sensitive to the fact that the other member of the couple was left hanging. As such, it is incumbent on the party who called for the time-out to resume the discussion, preferably within 1-2 hours, time permitting, or at their significant other’s convenience the following day.
  • After returning from the time-out, the party who called for it should thank their mate for their patience and understanding. If the second party is not yet ready to resume the discussion, it is up to them to notify their mate when they are ready.
  • Time-outs should only be used to regain calm and/or control of one’s emotions. Under no circumstances should a time-out ever be used to avoid discussion, simply because it is unwanted. (Doing so is indirect and avoidant at best, and dishonest at worst.) If discussion is unwanted by one of the parties, he or she should simply state that, and the other party should respect it.

In contrast to time-out, there are various communication tools which can aid a couple in continuing to dialogue even when the discussion becomes more intense (but only if desired by both parties). The first is called the “Speaker-Listener Technique.”

The Speaker-Listener Technique is a simple but elegant technique which, if done properly, ensures that both parties will be fully and completely heard. Why is this important? Human nature is such that, during conflict (especially that with rising intensity), people are prone to stop listening to one another, and start competing, focusing instead on their rebuttal or “comeback.” The argument escalates precisely because both people have stopped absorbing and are only reacting (i.e., to “hot” words, phrases, and fragments—without taking the time to consider the meaning of the spouse’s complete thought—and immediately launching into their comeback). Think about how often we or our person have to block an interruption by demanding, “LET ME FINISH!”

Have you ever noticed how most of your conflicts with your s/o involve small and trivial matters? If we and our partners were truly listening to one another, as opposed to simply “reacting,” we likely would not waste our energy on nearly as many miniscule issues. Family therapists often estimate that 90% of couples’ arguments could be eliminated or drastically shortened, with the solitary addition of listening. But again, for the human animal, once it feels threatened, this is much easier said than done.

Sensing that the intensity or emotional temperature is rising over some issue, either person can request that the couple begin the Speaker-Listener Technique. Here’s how it works: Get an object to pass back and forth, which will function as the “floor.” (Some couples buy a floor tile, and write something sweet on it, like “Pat + Chris = True Love”). The couple turns two chairs where they can sit knee-to-knee, facing one another. They decide who will be Speaker #1, and that person takes the “floor.” (The other person is Listener #1.) Speaker #1 proceeds to say what s/he desires to say, striving to be succinct. Before Listener #1 may have the floor, s/he must paraphrase back what Speaker #1 said, to Speaker #1’s satisfaction. After the paraphrase, Speaker #1 gives Listener #1 constructive feedback on his/her listening, i.e., “Snookums, that was great. You got 95% of it. There’s just one detail I didn’t hear, and that is ___________.” (The Listener #1 repeats the part that was missed.)

In contrast, let’s say Listener #1 misses most or nearly all of it. In that case, Speaker #1 should still be positive, i.e., “Tell you what…let’s try again…I’ll see if I can be clearer this time.” Once Listener #1 has demonstrated that s/he has completely heard Speaker #1, the floor can change hands: Listener #1 becomes Speaker #2, and Speaker #1 becomes Listener #2, and the process is repeated. If either speaker has a large amount to say, it is good to break it up into chunks, and allow the listener to paraphrase back each chunk, before the next chunk is presented.

After both parties have had a turn speaking and hearing their message repeated, more cycles of speaking/paraphrasing can be done, if needed, (but sometimes only one cycle is enough). The Speaker-Listener Technique usually demonstrates to couples rather quickly and dramatically the importance of listening. Interestingly, the technique often ends with couples not necessarily agreeing about or having resolved the issue at hand, but no longer in conflict over it! In other words, most couples actually can tolerate disagreement and/or unresolved conflict more than they think…what nobody can tolerate is not being heard. (Unfortunately, it hurts so much that, instinctively, people respond to it by rushing into defensiveness and fighting for their life, instead of listening.)