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Rules of Engagement for Time-outs


Have you ever said or done something that you wished you hadn’t? I know I have. That is generally when you are flooded, and your rational brain is turned off and you are operating from your limbic system or fight or flight brain. It happens to all of us. It is at the root of all manner of relational as well as physical disasters. This is not the place to have a relationship from!


When your heart rate gets above about 100 beats per minute we as humans lose the capacity to think rationally with some exceptions: Athletes, soldiers, doctors, police, firefighters and the like are trained to handle situations where they have to function in high-stress situations, but they train and train and train some more. These types of individuals are programmed to perform their functions even under extreme stress.


Everyone will switch to fight or flight depending on the level of stress and even trained professionals, trained for a crisis on the job, can have it happen in seemingly much less stressful situations at home. Everyone is different, but everyone is subject to this issue. It is a physiological response to strong emotions like fear, anger, or frustration. It is a design feature in the human being that is there to keep us alive – unnecessary systems are shut down in order to respond to the threat – we fight, flee, or freeze. That is great if you are facing a pack of hungry lions but not so good if you are facing your spouse or your child or your boss. Such interactions require your rational brain – so that you can think and reason and communicate. But in this flooded state (any strong emotion) your rational brain is turned off – blood flow is reduced which reduces the oxygen and nutrients keeping that ever so important part of the brain engaged.


If the relationship is important to you (or your freedom or even your life – depending on the situation) you need to disengage from the situation and take a time out. It is imperative so you and the other person can regain your rational thinking capabilities.


Everyone seems to know what a time out is – you go stand in the corner or go to your room – Right? Well, that is basically the first step – we need to put some physical and emotional space between the flooded people. Because if they are flooded, they will continue to escalate and make the situation worse – more volatile – not what we want in a relationship.


The rules of engagement for time-outs

1) Separate from the situation and person(s) who are overwhelming or flooding you.

2) Tell them that you need a time out, that your relationship with them is important, and that you need to have some time to think and regain your calm (rational thinking brain).

3) Tell them that you need 20 minutes to an hour and will be back to try again. That is the typical amount of time it takes for someone’s heart rate to return to normal. Never just walk out without a word, it strikes fears of abandonment in many people, and can also cause the situation to get worse.

4) Leave the situation. You may be confronted or blocked or pursued – run away if necessary or climb out a window – these situations can turn to life and death in an instant.

5) Take several deep breaths – long and slow – this will do wonders to speed up your calming down.

6) As you begin to relax think about who the other person is to you (spouse, child, boss, mom,…) and what they mean to you – you care about them, love them, treasure them (maybe not right now but in general).

7) Think about what the other person was trying to say to you – what did they really mean – what was behind the words and emotion? As opposed to; how can I get them to understand me. There is a place for that but start by trying to understand them.

8) Ask God or your higher power or the universe for clarity and understanding in the situation.

9) Think of questions you can ask to clarify and elaborate on their thoughts.

10) Go back and try again.

11) Start by telling the other person that you care about them and your relationship and that it is very important to you, admitting the things you know you didn’t do right or well.

12) Ask them to help you understand their point, opinion, or perspective. Even if you think they are crazy – they are arguing with you because they believe it is true – your goal is to understand their thinking, reasoning, and most importantly the meaning behind it.

13) Be open to take a time out again if one or both of you get flooded (Never say, “YOU need a time out!” Always say, “I need a time out”.


Everyone involved needs to know the rules of engagement and agree to follow them. Like any new tool, you must first practice until it becomes your new habit, or else when the going gets rough you will revert back to what you know best - what you have always done. Practice this simple set of rules and you will find that your relationships improve rapidly.

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