Time outs aren’t just for disobedient kids. They can be useful tools to stop arguments from becoming unproductive fights or worse, whether those arguments are between parents and children, partners, spouses or siblings. Timeouts aren’t meant to solve problems. However they can give each person a chance to think more clearly about their own perspective and recommit to hearing the other person.

Time outs are very different from just going away mad or simply giving up.  The agreement to revisit the issue is as important as taking a break. Here are some steps to try if you are interested in seeing how time-outs can improve your ability to resolve arguments.

Time-out Steps

  1. In advance, agree what your time-out phrase will be and how long the time-outs will be.  The phrase can be something straight-forward such as “I need to take a time-out” or a code word. What is important is that each person agrees to let the other person take a break, without further discussion or negative comments. Decide in advance how long the time out will be. Thirty minutes to an hour is often a good amount of time to start off with.
  2. When you are having a conversation or discussion, notice when you are tuning out the other person and/or becoming angry. What are your physical and emotional cues that the conversation is no longer productive? You may feel edgy or notice your teeth are clenched. Start to notice where your personal tipping point is. This will be useful information, because if you can take a break sooner you probably won’t need as long a break. In addition you can avoid the hurtful words and actions that can happen when you continue past your tipping point. However you can start using time-outs even if you haven’t identified your personal indicators in advance.
  3. Leave the scene for the agreed upon amount of time. After a few times you will learn how much each of you generally needs.
  4. The focus now is to calm yourself and/or tap into yourself. Here are some ways: take a walk, take slow breaths or write down your thoughts. However don’t distract yourself with TV watching or internet surfing and don’t alter your consciousness with alcohol or drugs. They are too likely to heat things up or stop the communication. Just chill in a healthy way.
  5. After you have calmed down, get curious about what made you mad, unable to hear the other person or unable to express yourself. Think about what you were trying to communicate and also what you think the other person was trying to communicate. Concentrate more on what you think the other person’s perspective might be. This may be difficult but is key to better communication.
  6. After the agreed upon amount of time check in with each other and find out if you are both ready to talk. If not, agree to another (perhaps longer) time out. If you are both ready to talk, begin with what you thought about during your break. Start with what you think might be the other person’s perspective. Check it out. You don’t have to agree with it; at this point you are just letting the other person know you heard them. If you are still unclear about their perspective or think you may have misunderstood, start by asking questions. Also try expressing your ideas and thoughts again while staying calm.
  7. If you start to get angry or shut down again, take another longer time-out and then try it again. If you find returning to the topic to be more challenging than the taking a break then that becomes your area of work. It is important to return to topics so issues can be resolved.

If you find some topics always trigger you, bring those issues to counseling. Likewise, if you or your relationship is stuck in an unproductive cycle, bring that into counseling.