Heated conversations with our partner can be exhausting. They can also feel as though they are going nowhere. “We don’t seem to be getting anywhere with this conversation!” I’ve heard it. I’ve said it!
Sometimes we will benefit if we give our conversation a rest and take a break. “Can we pause and come back to this conversation later?”
Space can be a powerful tool for resolving conflicts. It gives us room to take a breath, to digest what our partner said to us, and to diffuse any tension that either party (or both) may be feeling or acting on. A break can accomplish a lot.
But many of us believe we can, and should, walk away from a heated conversation whenever we feel like it. We say things like, “You can’t force me to talk to you,” as we march into the next room or out of the house. This often leaves our partner feeling uncared for. It can also leave them thinking we will leave any conversation whenever we feel like it if we do not like the way the it’s going. This can be the beginning of a toxic cycle that leads to nowhere good. This toxic cycle may include our partners leaving a conversation whenever they feel like it too! When we want to talk, they may be unwilling. Important decisions may not get addressed or made because there are now two people communicating poorly.
Years ago I published a blog, Space: The Final Frontier, that discussed how when considering a break-up, space may be just what the doctor ordered instead. The same principal of space is applied here to rules of engagement or disengagement when arguing.
When we want to pause a conversation, following a few important steps will help to keep the well-being of our partner, ourself, and our relationship in mind. These rules matter because, ideally, we want to take care of one another. We want to demonstrate respect for our partner and their concerns at all times. We do not do this by shutting down their ability to communicate with us. To do a top-notch job of tabling a conversation, here are the rules:
- Ask permission: Let’s create a habit of asking permission to have a conversation with our partner when we have a concern. “Can I get a few minutes of your time? I have a concern I want to share with you.” This request is important because we want to make it clear that we value our partner’s time and we would like some of it. It can also help alleviate any feeling of imposition our partner may experience when we begin a potentially time-intensive conversation.
- Be open to a time limit: Our partner may prefer to have a time limit on the conversation. “I can talk for 10 minutes. Anything more than that will require a part two.” This can be a sincere compromise because our partner is probably expressing that they want to give us some of their time even though they have other commitments or priorities to consider. If so, it’s a show of care. If a part two is necessary, schedule it. Set a date and a time to wrap up the conversation. In this case, both parties are equally charged with making themselves available within a reasonable amount of time. Both parties are also equally charged with showing up whenever the follow-up conversation is scheduled.
- Resist ignorance: Once a conversation has started, ignorance is a no-no. We aren’t talking about acting a fool. We’re talking about ignoring our partner when they are talking. There are a litany of passive-aggressive measures that many of us adopt to relay a “fuck you” attitude when we are talking to our partner, or actually when our partner is talking to us. These behaviors may include looking at our phones, singing, or walking around the room. The bottom line is it is important to give our partner our full attention when they are speaking to us. Let’s avoid passive-aggressively tabling the conversation in our mind despite remaining physically present. Our partner feels the applicable disdain, and it often hurts.
- Take five minutes for every fifteen: For every fifteen minutes of talking (or possibly arguing) each person will be able to call a five-minute time-out to calm themself or to possibly calm their partner. If there is a call for a time-out, both parties will separate for five minutes and then reconvene. No permission is necessary. This can be a rule that you all agree to.
- Request a break: When we begin to talk to one another, we create a quiet agreement that says we will listen and respond. Implicitly, there is the possibility that we may discuss something that isn’t pleasant. If that unpleasant patch is reached, we are well-served to let our partner speak. If one of us, in the middle of a conversation, says, “I gotta go,” we are inherently shutting down our partner as they cannot continue the conversation without us. Believe it or not, this can be a form of violence.
If we wish to table a conversation with our partner for an extended period of time when there was no initial agreement to do so, ask for permission. This really is a request because we are asking to break an implicit agreement, and the answer might be, “No.” If “No” is the response, then stay in the conversation. However, if our ask is heartfelt, we will often have our request granted. When the request is granted, agree on a new time to meet—a time that demonstrates a sincerity and seriousness related to addressing the issue, not an effort to run from it or our partner.
Once the date and time is set, let’s adhere to it. It is the requester’s responsibility to come back to their partner at the agreed-on time and say something like, “OK, let’s resume.” This is particularly important because we want to maintain our integrity and our reputation. If we create a pattern of tabling the conversation, but not resuming it, it can appear that we are avoiding the issue. This is not good, and it is not loving.
These are the table or tabling manners (rules). Let’s discuss them with our partner and come to some agreement around their usefulness and how they may serve to improve our connection and our process of working together, even when we are in a challenging conversation. Please use them judiciously, responsibly, and lovingly.
Watch Frank Love’s presentation, “The Act of Caring.”
Frank Love coaches individuals who are in (or wish to be in) a relationship on ways to create a loving culture in their relationship. He is also the author of “Relationship Conversations You Don’t Want to Have (But Should Anyway)” and “25 Ways to Be Loving.” To schedule a free consultation, contact Frank at Frank@FrankLove.com.