Communicating around breaks – Part 2 – Initiating a break in conflict

White background with two people, beside each other but faced in opposite directions both looking unhappy.

When you initiate a break in conflict it is usually most effective to focus on the fact that you are initiating it for your own benefit, rather than making observations about someone else’s emotions or needs. We are the experts in our own emotional state and our own emotional needs. When we express those it is hard for people to argue with them in good faith, even if they have a different view about what we should need or whether what we need is reasonable. As soon as we move out of our lane and start to make observations about someone elses emotional state and their needs we open up plentiful room for argument. Consider the difference between:

I’m having a really hard time really hearing what you’re saying right now, I need a break to clear my head so that I can really understand your perspective

And:

You’re obviously angry and I think you need a break because you’re not making any sense right now. 

It is much harder to argue with the first statement. It begins with someone sharing their own experience of difficulty in paying attention and comprehension, this statement is a difficult one to disagree with because no one knows whether it is true more than the person saying it. It goes on to express a personal need and the intention behind it. Once again, no one is better positioned than the person saying it to identify their need and intention, which makes it hard to argue with. The second statement is commenting on someone else’s emotions – and just on its own that often makes people feel very defensive, particularly if the other person is misinterpreting their emotional state. It is very easy for someone to say ‘I’m not angry, I’m upset’ and then to end up in an argument about behaviour and/or interpretation. It goes on to suggest what the other person needs, and in the midst of conflict people will often feel very angry or distressed by the other person imposing their assumptions about what they need. It is very easy to argue with this, starting with ‘how dare you try to tell me what I need’. It ends with a criticism of the person’s communication, and criticism often escalates conflict, since it is likely to be an invitation for the person to tell you how they are making sense and how you’re just not listening properly. 

Even when all you’re able to say is ‘I need a break’ it is usually a lot more helpful to own that than to try to get the other person to admit that they need a break. So, where possible use ‘I’ statements, and if you can let the other person know what you hope the break will help with. 

As I said in the last post, agreeing on how long a break will be for is essential. For some conflicts this might mean that you need to schedule a later time to talk about it, especially if you don’t cohabitate or you have other important priorities requiring your attention (such as child care, work, study etc.). For others it might mean that you’re going to take 20 minutes apart and then come right back to it. What matters most here is clarity in where and when you will come back to have the discussion. Twenty minutes is the minimum for a break to be effective in reducing the chemicals flooding your brain, so it is usually helpful to take that as the starting point.

Negotiating space can be helpful, and this can be brief too. You might say something like ‘I’m taking the bedroom’. If you already have an agreement that you will go into separate spaces that might be all that is needed. If you don’t have an agreement around separate spaces you might want to extend this and say “I’m taking the bedroom, I want to be alone” or “ I’m taking the bedroom and you’re welcome to join me”. Personally, I prefer being in separate spaces for breaks, but I know of lots of folks that find breaks helpful who keep sharing the same space, and sometimes you don’t have a choice because you’re stuck in a car or plane together. It may take some experimentation to work out what works best for you. 

You might find it helpful to reflect on this post and think about what works for you. Creating your own script can make it a lot easier to say something constructive in the midst of a conflict, so consider whether there is something you might be able to say that includes “I” statements about needing a break, the duration and your intention. 

There is a lot here, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get it all exactly the way you’d like to the first time around. It is hard! The aim is to be moving towards something that is workable and effective in your relationship. You’re likely to find that there are ways that you refine breaks to work better for you over time, especially if you review your progress when you have a check-in. If you have any suggestions that you think would be helpful to others, comment below. 

The next post is all about what to do to de-escalate your emotions during a break – a super important skill if you’re going to be able to use breaks to their best effect!

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