The Time Out: A Secret for Adult Conflict Resolution

Taking a break when you’re hashing out a conflict can make resolution possible.

Posted Dec 30, 2020

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

There are questions that we need to answer immediately, like, “Your money or your life?!”

But for many or most questions before us, we can slow down the clock or even turn the clock off altogether. Recognizing this gives us much more power to resolve arguments and to keep them from going ugly along the way.

Fast decisions are often rash decisions in hindsight. Wisdom usually takes time. However, the irrational belief many of us have, the feeling we “should” be instant geniuses, should be able to answer a question when it’s asked, keeps us from acting with wisdom.

So, we each have a choice to make: Live the instant genius fantasy, or use the language of somebody who at least tries to be wise, by saying, in some form, “I need more time before I can answer.”

  • In a work conversation: “I’m not sure what I think about this approach. Let me get back to you in a couple of hours.”
  • In an email: “I need to give this some thought.” I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.”
  • In a relationship conflict that’s getting heated: “Let’s take a pause—come back and talk some more in an hour.” (Maybe one of you walks around the block and one takes a bath).

Taking time to think makes not only for the wisdom that comes with careful consideration but with what amounts to free mental labor.

Consider the effort that usually goes into reasoning versus what I like to call “emotioning.” Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky explained that our emotions are “fast” and automatic. If somebody throws a rock through your picture window, you don’t stand there looking at it and decide whether you should get angry. You just get angry—automatically. However, if you need to determine the most rational course of action, that takes mental work. You have to decide to reason and put energy into working out the best approach.

However, there’s an exception, thanks to what neurologist Marcus Raichle and his colleagues call the “default mode” of the brain. As I explained it in Unf*ckology:

When you aren’t focusing your brain directly on some problem, your brain’s “default mode” processing takes over. This is basically background processing—like when you give your computer a software program to run and then go out to dinner. The work gets done—but without you sitting there for an hour screaming about all the horrible things you’d like to do to Bill Gates.

This might be why some of your most brilliant solutions to problems come not when you are bent over a page fretting about solving them but when you are washing a dish, walking the dog, or taking a shower.

Taking a break from a problem, putting it in a back burner temporarily, is the way you might get the “default mode” mental elves into the trenches. Remembering to do this in the moment will probably take pre-planning, but once you get in the habit of taking time to answer, the rewards from doing that will remind you to keep doing it in the future.

Finally, there’s an important caveat: Be sure you schedule and follow through on a time to give your decision, lest you become known not for your wisdom but for your resemblance to a weasel.

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Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.

Raichle, Marcus E., Ann Mary MacLeod, Abraham Z. Snyder, William J. Powers, Debra A. Gusnard, and Gordon L. Shulman. "A default mode of brain function." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 2 (2001): 676-682.