Fight less, communicate more: The one simple rule on when to talk, and when to not

It’s dinner time. There’s a pot boiling over on the stove. Your toddler is running around with – what is that he has in his hands? A marker? With the lid off? Your six-year-old is holding up a tampon and loudly asking, “What is this??”

The doorbell is ringing. Your teen’s new girlfriend’s parents are here for supper. Your partner thinks this is a really good time to bug you again about the new refrigerator you’ve been looking into.

Have you done it yet? Have you looked into it? What did you think? Surely, this is an ideal time for that conversation?

Let’s face it: Most of us – whether we would admit it or not – would like to say a few choice words to our partners right then and there. Heck, we may even yank the tampon out of our child’s hands with a “Where did you get that!” and then for good measure, yell at our toddler to, “Put that down now!”

Um, can we blame you? Nope! That sounds stressful.

It also sounds like it would lead to three separate family fights and a whole lot of guilt.

No thank you. Luckily there is a better way. It’s called the HALTED method.

The rule is this: You never want to have any sort of family or relationship conversation when you feel

  • Hungry
  • Angry/anxious
  • Lonely
  • Tired
  • Excited (amped up for any reason)
  • Drunk/Drugged

or
Everyone knows when you are hungry you cannot focus. The word hangry has been included in dictionaries for a reason. Your temper is short because you are focused on an actual survival need: being fed.

When you are anxious/angry, you are not thinking clearly. You are likely to have a conversation (or more likely, an argument) that goes in circles. This is because you don’t know what your actual point is and you’re focused more on winning (power) or avoiding (unpleasantness). 

The same two principles apply if you are tired. This is why, actually, going to bed angry is a good thing! You are more likely to have an amicable solution when you are both refreshed. Plus you are less likely to encounter the, “I’m still angry. I didn’t mean what I said last night, I simply agreed so you would let me sleep” – a.k.a. the continuation of an argument you thought was over. Surprise! Welcome to a second day of crappy mood and tense family atmosphere.

The last one may seem obvious. We know we shouldn’t fight when under the influence, yet this is often the most appealing time to fight.

Or, we think, “No one in my family has an issue with that, it’s not relevant.” But imagine you have a teen who’s coming back from a party and is being disrespectful. Or you’ve been out on a date night, and you’re not thinking straight yourself.

What happens when conversations happen under-the-influence is that someone says something they regret. Things escalate fast. Or, 9 months later you’re wishing that you really, really had the “Let’s have another baby talk” when sober. Surprise again!

It’s harder to recognize that we shouldn’t converse when lonely or excited. Usually because we don’t often realize when we are feeling those ways. A good rule is to not have any substantial conversations when you simply aren’t feeling 100% present.

Communication is not the same as conversation.

This article isn’t asking you to stop talking or communicating until you feel “perfect”. It’s not about silent treatment. There is a lot of connection and communication that can happen even within chaos. For example, you can say to your six-year-old, “Great question. I’ll answer when supper is done. Please put that away.”

You can remind your toddler, “Oops! Where’s the lid. Find it quick quick!”

You can turn to your partner and say, “Fabulous time to ask about the fridge. I’m happy to answer if you wanna take over this cooking here?”

OK, subtle sarcasm crept its way in.

How about, “I’m pretty busy to give an answer. Let’s talk later.”

Sometimes communication is as simple as a look that says, “I love you. Let’s not do this right now.”

Conversation is when you go deeper into the point you need to make, or the lesson you want to teach. Conversation needs everyone to feel ready to talk. It’s the only way a conversation can feel pleasant and productive.

For example: When it’s time to talk with your toddler about markers you are focused and kind. When it’s time to talk to your six-year-old about tampons, you are calm and prepared. When it’s time to talk to your partner about the fridge, you are both present and on topic. When it’s time to talk to your teen about drinking and their behaviour, they have sobered up. 

Communicating means validating that someone has brought something important up. It is acknowledgement. Conversation is the actual discussion in depth on a topic. A conversation is way more manageable when you have done the prior work of communicating, “This matters but now is not the time”. To go a step further, I always recommend that the couples I work with add: “We will talk about this at x time”.

When you tell someone it matters and that you have scheduled it in, their anxiety drops. It helps them not panic or walk on egg shells wondering “are they gonna be upset at me forever.” This technique means you get space to mentally prepare and they can become as present and focused as you. That way, when conversation does get heavy, you’re both on board and equally invested in an amicable outcome.

One final word: You don’t have to be perfect at this. It takes practice. Sometimes what you say in a conversation matters less than how you say it. Sometimes what sticks with kids is that you were willing to talk! 

Children, teens and even partners tend to remember less the topic of conversation and more the feel of the conversation. If you talk when HALTED they remember that feeling. When you talk when present, they learn this is a safe space to communicate about anything. 

Want to know more about how to have a difficult conversation? Read our blog here. Have questions about emotional validation? Check out our articles on holding space, active listening, and emotional validation. 

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