How to Take a Break from an Argument: The Right Way

By Jasmine Payne, Resident in Counseling

The holiday season can be stressful… not to mention, we are amidst a pandemic and coming down from a very tense election season. Although family gatherings may be limited this year, it is likely we will be in more frequent communication with various relatives. If you are in a partnership, you will probably be in contact with your significant other’s family as well. Increased contact has the potential to lead to increased conflict. Be sure to show yourself some self-love if things become tense.

Do you know when it’s time to take a break from a conversation? And do you know how to make that break productive? A productive break will lead to a calmer demeanor and is more likely to result in repair and connection, as opposed to escalating tempers and leading to damaging disconnection.

When to take a break: Flooding

When you notice yourself or your mom/dad/uncle/sister etc. getting physically escalated, this is a good indication a break may be necessary. This can look like flushed cheeks, clenched fists or jaws, loud voices, and racing heart. Tune in to your body’s response to conflict and notice when you are starting to get overstimulated.

How to take a break: 20 minutes minimum

Introduce the idea of taking a short pause in the conversation when you notice escalation. If you are physically flooded, it is virtually impossible for you to listen to another person. Dr. John Gottman states these breaks should last at least 20 minutes in order for your body to return to homeostasis. WarningThis will not happen if you continue to ruminate on the argument while on your break.

A break is not meant for you to gather your thoughts, compile your evidence, and return to the conversation ready to state your claim. A productive break requires that you distance yourself physically and mentally. Go on a walk, focus on your breathing, and take your mind away from the conflict.

This is a very difficult skill to master. To remove yourself from a situation where you feel strong emotions and then intentionally redirect yourself is no easy task. Done correctly, these breaks will allow you to return to the conversation in a calmer state, more willing to listen, and ready to enact positive change. Upon your return, this may look like saying “I can see we don’t agree on this topic and I don’t think now is the time to continue this conversation” or “I am happy to continue this discussion if we can keep our voices down and listen to one another.” Try to look at conflict as an opportunity to connect and understand each other better.

Ultimately, we all want to be heard and understood.

Take care of yourself and each other during this out of the ordinary holiday season.

*There are limits to reaching out through conflict with curiosity. You are under no obligation to entertain someone attacking your right to be alive and be who you are. When conflict turns to dehumanization or vitriol you are not required to endure that treatment. In these kinds of situations breaks may not be as useful as it is not so much a matter of de-escalation, but of something more deeply rooted in value systems.*

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