Author: Peter Pearson, Ph.D.
Houston We Have a Problem!
If astronauts went to Mars, it would take up to 20 minutes to transmit a message to mission control in Houston, and 20 minutes more for them to receive a response from mission control. That’s a 40-minute time lag!
“Mayday Mayday! Mission control, our left fuel tank blew up!”
40 minutes later…
“Roger that. Turn down the right fuel tank by 20%, follow section 5 of the manual and whatever you do, DO NOT shut down the engine!”
Another 40 minutes later…
“Houston, we shut the engine down… The right fuel tank exploded, and the manual went with it because Charlie forgot to do his job and put it back where it belonged! Now what?”
Communication “Lag Time” Isn’t a Bad Thing
It’s clear why Astronauts haven’t made it to Mars yet. In an emergency where every second counts, this time lag can be detrimental to the astronauts’ survival. On the other hand, I find time lag to be a beneficial approach to use with the couples I help. As the calm and neutral middleman, it is my job to provide a safe environment with ground rules that will encourage couples to communicate effectively, instead of reacting immediately to one another with thoughtless, hurtful words out of anger.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say we are revisiting a fight a couple had last week. I have one partner be the astronaut on Mars sending the first message and the other as Mission Control. This means there will be a time lag before they get to respond to each other.
The partner who goes first (the wife in this scenario), usually says something critical about their partner. I tell the husband that he has to wait to respond in the amount of time of my choosing (it’s really subjective). I just want them both to wait.
While the husband is waiting to speak, I say to the wife, “Your husband is probably wondering how to respond. He’s likely listing all the ways you’re wrong in his head. Or maybe, he’s wondering if he should take the high ground and ask about your concerns. What path do you think he’ll take? Maybe he’ll express how he is feeling instead of a defensive rebuttal.”
Even though I am addressing the wife, I am actually talking to the husband. Having to wait before responding, combined with hearing me list out the ways he could respond, not only slows down the conversation, it helps the husband to choose a better way to respond. After he responds, the wife then has to wait, and I will have the same discussion with the husband.
A Healthier Approach to Relationship Communication
This method works immediately for some couples, yet for others, it takes a few rounds before they truly communicate in a healthier way. Once the pace and tone of the conversation improve, I encourage and compliment them. “You guys are pretty good communicators when you slow it down. You guys do a pretty good job!” This enables the couple to have a new perspective on their communication and will hopefully inspire them to continue to practice this healthier approach to disagreements.
What strategies do you use to moderate or de-escalate an argument in your relationship?
If you ever feel like you’re struggling to communicate effectively in your relationship, don’t be afraid to reach out to a couples counselor for support. We have a network of trained and licensed couples counselors available around the country to support every type of relationship. At Grow My Relationship, we believe your relationship with your partner is the most important one in your life and is worth working on.