Pausing with Purpose

How taking smarter breaks can prevent little disagreements from turning into big fights

Photo by George Coletrain on Unsplash

One of the great lessons from mindfulness traditions is about the power of pausing. So often, we react impulsively to the world around us, rather than respond skillfully.

If there is one thing I wish I could teach my twenty-year-old self, it would be to pause and take a break before letting my temper do the talking.

I’ve found taking a pause can be helpful in so many scenarios.

About to send an angry email? Take a pause.

Distracted and endlessly scrolling through your newsfeed? Take a pause.

Stressed and opening up the snack drawer? Take a pause.

Pausing allows us to put a small buffer between our instinctual reactions and our more thoughtful, considered self.

In fact, research shows that the limbic system, often referred to as our brain’s “emotional center”, takes 350 milliseconds to respond to stimuli. Our neocortex, the “executive center” of the brain, takes 4–6 seconds.

If you’ve ever had an emotional outburst, then moments later regretted it, you know from experience what this is like. Our “feeling brain” moves much quicker than our “thinking brain.”

Now, even when we are practicing pausing and our intentions are good, it isn’t always easy. This is especially true when it’s practiced in relation to others.

That’s why Dr. Julie Gottman’s best practices for meaningful breaks can be so helpful.

Dr. Gottman, a clinical psychologist and researcher, has developed a set of rules that you can apply to disagreements in your relationships, whether that is with your partner, coworker, or family member.

These best practices were discovered in a series of experiments when researchers prompted a disagreement between couples and then told them they needed to pause the experiment to fix the recording equipment.

The subjects were sent into a waiting room to read or listen to music, and when they returned, they were almost entirely new people.

What happened? The break allowed emotions to calm down, and the resulting conversation was much more humane.

I have often tried to use breaks and pauses to keep conversations from overheating, but I didn’t realize that I often make one of the most common mistakes that Dr. Gotttman sees (#2 below). Whoops.

Going forward, I’m excited to experiment with these practices in my own life, and I hope you’ll find them useful too!

Put it into practice

When you feel a disagreement turning into a fight, consider following these simple steps to make taking a pause easier and more beneficial.

Define the time. When you find yourself emotionally flooded and needing a break, be specific about when you want to resume the conversation. Dr. Gottman suggests a minimum of 30 minutes so your physiology can calm down, but try not to break for longer than a day.

Don’t think about it. The most common mistake is using the break to rehash the argument. This keeps our bodies triggered, so we can’t process the emotions. Instead, use the time for some self-soothing, like reading a book or listening to music.

Ask for more. Once your break is over, check-in with yourself to see how you feel. Don’t rush back into the discussion if your emotions are still running high. It’s totally okay to ask for more time to process.

Remember, it’s “no big deal.” Reminding yourself that all relationships have conflict is important. It’s not a sign of anything bad, it’s just part of human life. By reflecting on this, you will develop a deeper perspective that will soften the impact of future conflicts.

Words of wisdom

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you.” — Anne Lamott

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