One Simple Way to Improve Marital Problems, Family Conflict, & Communication in Relationships

be patient like when using a navigation system and you will have fewer marital problemsEver get really impatient waiting for an answer to a question?

I know a lot of people like this (you know, like me). Unfortunately, this impatience causes problems.

Let’s take Jake, a student with whom I work. One of his teachers had a frustrating experience with him. The teacher asked him a question. Jake looked at him and said…nothing.

The teacher checked in with me about the student, commenting, “there’s not much up there. That kid just stares at you like you have two heads or something.”

There are innumerable reasons I found this disturbing. What bothered me most was that he was wrong.

Ever Think If Your Partner Would Just Give You a Second You Would Have Less Marital Problems?

Now, I will admit that he does have this blank look on his face while he’s thinking.

I’m sure you’ve seen that look on your wife, husband, parent, or child at some point.

For me, that look is like waiting for a GPS system to figure out directions after a wrong turn, monotonously repeating recalculating, recalculating, recalculating.

Yet Jake, like any good GPS unit, arrives at a sound answer after the extended period of recalculating. In fact, he has a lot of things to say. It just takes him a little extra time to process information and figure out what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it.

There is something about waiting for a

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response from someone that is exceptionally hard for many people.

There may be a range of reasons but one that I see time and again is this: an inability to tolerate silence.

What the Teacher Missed Due to His Impatience With Jake

The educator was asking Jake if he could stay after for extra help and prepare for an upcoming test.

Jake was having a bad day. He had gotten in a fight with his mother in the morning. He received a detention an hour earlier for tardiness. He did not have a ride home. If he had stayed for the detention he would have had to walk over an hour — in the rain.

Jake was trying to process all of this information — the insecurity he felt about needing extra academic help, the conflict with his mother, and his transportation issues.

How do I know this?

Because after I spoke with the teacher, I checked in with him. I asked him how he was doing.

And I waited.

But I HATE It!

Silence, that is.

If you truly want to understand someone use a strategy that teachers are taught to use in the classroom. Give “wait time.”

If the teacher waits 5-10 seconds someone will eventually raise their hand and answer (the student group can’t tolerate silence either!).

It is too bad the teacher did not apply this technique during his private chat with Jake. Just imagine what the teacher may have learned!

More importantly, imagine what you are missing by not waiting for an answer when you are arguing with your spouse or irritable with your teenager.

Wait time is an under-rated element of effective communication. Wait time gives people time to process information, react emotionally, and figure out how to articulate thoughts and feelings.

I have written about how helpful “being curious” can be to effective communication. The reality is that curiosity only helps if you give people the time they need to properly respond to what you are asking of them.

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Allow people — like your spouse, parent or child — to finish recalculating, recalculating, recalculating…and you may be amazed at what you can learn.

What other strategies would you recommend for waiting patiently for someone to respond to you?

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About the Author ()

I help families resolve conflict through family mediation and divorce mediation in Massachusetts. My services include mediation for co-parenting disputes, marriage problems, separation and divorce, parents and teenagers, and family conflicts. The goal of my mediator's blog is to help teach or remind readers of helpful communication and conflict resolution techniques that can be used in their relationships. I live in Natick, MA with my wife, son and dog and mediate throughout the Metrowest Boston region. Please note that my name is spelled Ben Stich, not Ben Stitch.

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Comments (14)

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  1. So true! First of all, it is extremely disrespectful to make someone respond before they are ready to do so. Second, they may not respond accurately, if forced to respond too soon. What do you think happens then?

    • Ben Stich says:

      Explosions….resentments,,,,arguments….interruptions…and the sad part is that when this happens people aren’t even arguing about the real issues! Thanks for commenting on the blog, Mark.

  2. Philippa says:

    Silence can be extremely powerful in an argument. Like words, it can also be misinterpreted because it is seldom used appropriately. In situations like the one in the article, people who take longer to answer can train themselves to respond with “can I get back to you?” automatically. This can avoid escalating a situation or allowing for a missed opportunity.

  3. Donya Zimmerman says:

    This article is really awesome because it explains how to listen and allow someone else to talk with conflict. I believe that issues get resolved better if only people learn to listen and respect each other.

  4. I just covered in this in a couple’s session. Husband needed time to process the information and create a response that would invite communication. Yet, he waited days which created additional tension between them. WHat he was trying to avoid he actually created. Now, they know to say, “I need some time to thing about it and I will get back to you.” WOrks so much better. However, the key is, you must “get back to them”!!

    • Ben Stich says:

      I just read a great post on that exact subject but sadly can’t remember where. The central idea being the harm “silence” can have on a relationship as it lacks intimacy, can be controlling, etc… Of course, that’s a very different type of silence than is advocated in my post. Your story is ironic and a cautionary tale about the risks of taking any approach to an extreme! Thanks sharing again, Ann Marie!

  5. My favorite “tip” is to (pre-) consider an answer to a question as a gift for which I am grateful. Nothing more will be required or expected.

    • Ben Stich says:

      Thanks for commenting, Marty. I am not sure I understand your comment…are you trying to say that one tip you have is to preemptively provide answers to questions that you know will eventually be asked? And hence nothing else will be required? Or am I missing your main idea? Just want to make sure I understand!

  6. Pat Lynch says:

    While new to Mediation, I have been involved in conflict resolution and negotiation for many years. I have always found silence to be productive in communication

  7. Chris Petersen says:

    My wife is totally intolerant of silence. She sits with the telephone to her ear, laptop clicking and controls the television channels, because women can multi-task!
    Three seconds of silence will lead to a tantrum, but three seconds is rarely enough time for me on a serious personal topic. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
    What next, this has been almost 40 years!
    ChrisP

    • Ben Stich says:

      Well, you can’t control your wife, Chris. You can only control you. Have you ever asked if you could speak with her for a few minutes without distractions? In a non-defensive way? Ex., I would really like to talk for a few minutes without anything else on…versus, you never listen to me with all those electronics… The only way you can influence her is by changing the way you communicate…here’s a link to a woman talking about how she and her husband never listened to one another, and what she did to change the dynamic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P93O-Zn_qt8

      If the dynamic is too entrenched (40 years!) it may be helpful to consult with a couples counselor, marriage coach, or marriage mediator. Hope something in this response is helpful, Chris! Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

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