The Power of Pausing: A Simple Tool for Better Outcomes in Challenging Conversations
Have you ever found yourself embroiled in an argument with your co-parent about an emotionally-charged issue and wondered how you got there? Have you had this same argument before and it did not end well? You’re not alone. It’s common for partners to have the same unproductive argument about a challenging issue over and over again. Why is that?
Communication goes south when we get triggered by our co-parent and are reacting in the moment to lash out, protect or defend ourselves. In that aroused state we can say things we don’t mean or do things that escalate what’s being said. In that aroused state we are more likely to hold fast to our beliefs about the other person (however mistaken or incomplete) and less likely to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. In that aroused state, we can only see our side of the argument and are rarely able to listen. It’s a dance of give and take that is automatic (i.e. without conscious awareness) and can seem inevitable. What can be done to improve the outcome?
The critical step is to realize that you are in an aroused state and decide to take a pause. Pausing is a way to slow down that leads to calming down that allows for more conscious choice about what to do next. It can stop the negative exchange, break the unconscious trance you are in, offer you time to ground yourself and gather your thoughts and maybe even enable you to rejoin the conversation more able to listen.
Pauses can be as short or as long as you need them to be. They can be brief and internal (e.g. taking a few deep breaths) or they can be longer and obvious (e.g. saying out loud “I need a 20-minute break to clear my head”).
When can it be helpful to pause?
- Before blurting out something in the heat of the moment.
- When you realize that your body is in react mode (e.g. increased heart rate, tightness in chest or throat, shaky voice, raised voice).
- When you know things are escalating and you can feel yourself shutting down and unable to stay present.
- After you’ve realized you said something you regret and you want to get things back on track.
- When you are repeating yourself to prove your point and dominating the discussion.
- When your efforts to get through to your co-parent are going nowhere.
Pausing is a tool that is always available to us AND it is hard to remember to do. That’s because it’s difficult to track our thoughts and emotions when we are in an aroused state. What helps is knowing in advance what being triggered typically feels like in your body and how you often respond. Then when you experience those physical symptoms, you can remind yourself to pause and take stock.
Taking a pause
- Stops the action and, at the very least, keeps you from continuing to engage with your co-parent in an unproductive way.
- Enables you to reflect on what’s most important to you about the issue under discussion rather than react about what your co-parent just said.
- Reminds you that you are half the equation of what’s not working and that you can only control yourself.
- Offers you the chance to figure out what needs to happen for you to be in a better problem-solving frame of mind.
If, after pausing, you determine that a longer break is needed, it’s important to say so to your co-parent and negotiate another time to meet.
Pausing is a powerful tool that can help many conversations go better. In some cases, however, it may not be enough to improve the outcome. If you have tried repeatedly to resolve the same challenging issue using all the tools you have, it may be time to seek help.
We at Our Family Forward have helped hundreds of couples come to agreements both during and after divorce. Contact us if you think we could be of help to you!