When you are in the midst of a reactive pattern, the only result you can get is further reactivity. You will never resolve the issue if your reactive brain has taken control of the conversation. Continuing to talk more is like trying to put out a fire by throwing gasoline on it. Good things will never come of further communication. It’s time to agree to stop the damage.
Making an agreement to pause at such times with your partner is crucial. It can literally save your relationship. If you cannot pause, it is as if you have a car that only has an accelerator and no brakes. That will never turn out well for you, as you will just go faster and faster, speeding up until you crash. Empowering your relationship with a pause agreement is like installing a vital factor — brakes — in your vehicle.
Couples who come to my marriage retreats learn to take control of their conversations with the pause tool. I often have them consider making a formal pause agreement with one another. It forms the centerpiece of a new way of communicating — one that truly can resolve issues and promote good feelings and shared happiness. You could call it a basic tool that supports lasting love.
Ingredients of a Pause Agreement
There are six ingredients required to make a good pause agreement. If you leave one of these out… or fail to observe it… the tool will not work.
1. Pick a Signal — You formally pick a verbal signal. This can be the words “I need to pause” or “time out” or “can we slow down?” or anything else that will work for you. It should be short and clearly identifiable in any context. I had clients, for instance, who raised horses. They loved to say “whoa” as was already in their automatic vocabulary to control a horse that was accelerating out of control. How appropriate they could use that to take control of their own galloping conversations.
2. The Signal is Absolute — You agree that when this verbal signal is given by either person, you both will immediately stop talking no matter what is happening. There needs to be no further explanation of why one of you has called a pause. No justification is required. You already understand the full meaning of the verbal signal and the intention behind using it. There is no debate. It is absolute. You stop and take a time out!
3. Your Job is to Signal — It is your job to say “I need to pause” as soon as possible… whenever you sense either you or your partner react in any way. You must say it as soon as you realize you are starting to react. You don’t wait or think, “We can solve this if I can just make my point” or “I can take a little more of this…” You give your signal. Hesitation to do this is the main failing point of most couples in using this tool.
4. Propose When to Come Back — Whoever gives the signal proposes the time needed in order to continue and address the issue in a more resourceful way. If one person only needs a minute breather, but the other needs twenty minutes because they have escalated that high, then take the longer time. It is then both partners’ primary duty to get centered in order to better hear the other person when they do get back together.
5. While Pausing, Get Resourceful —It is then both partners’ primary duty to get centered in order to better hear the other person when they do get back together. This means using the pause time — whether a minute or an hour — to calm down, to get grounded, to let go of reactive self-talk, to remember your partner and you are friends, trying to work out an issue. So get resourceful to be able to hear each other, with curiosity and without judgement.
6. Come Back and Solve the Issue — You must come back as agreed. The pause tool is not a method for avoiding important issues. It’s a way to stay resourceful, where you can successfully negotiate wants and needs and find mutual resolution. It’s a way to keep the heat of destructive reactions from kicking in and taking over your ability to resolve anything. It’s about getting resourceful enough to work on your issues as friends, calm and creative enough to find solutions that truly work for both of you.
Knowing how to pause is a necessary first tool to halt destructive communication. Additionally, there are many more powerful tools for successful communication, to heal negative feelings and to overcome reactive patterns. Learn the full set of communication tools, including the pause tool, in either of my books: Relationship Tools for Positive Change or Five-Minute Relationship Repair »