Time Out!

I don’t know whether it was my gray beard or my not-so-slim-anymore, middle-aged physique that caused the young mother of a rambunctious two-year-old to turn to me for fatherly advice in the park. In utter desperation, she confessed: “My son thinks his name is Time-Out because I shout it in his direction so often!” With a glazed look, she went on to ask, “Do you think I’m overdoing it?”

Since I always considered my wife’s parenting skills far superior to mine and she wasn’t nearby for the handoff, the best I could offer was a mumbled response about a good parenting book I had heard about and vague encouragement that this too shall pass. For good measure, I added something about how she may even enjoy a few years of peace before adolescence wreaked havoc on her home once again. I could sense her frustration with my wholly unsatisfying answer, yet she managed to force a brief smile before darting down the path in hot pursuit of her little wrecking ball who had wiggled out of her grasp.

My encounter with the young woman caused me to think about timeouts—both as a parenting tool and a self-coaching technique for adults who want to get better results in their relationships.

As a parenting tool, Arthur W. Staats introduced timeouts as an alternative to corporal punishment and a better way to teach productive behaviors. So, despite my own upbringing in the spare the rod, spoil the child era, I could easily see how forced compliance, blaming, and shaming weren’t ideal parenting behaviors. And if I wasn’t already convinced, researchers demonstrated that when used correctly, children complied with their mother’s requests 83 percent of the time—an impressive result considering that the behavior of toddlers and teens always seemed to be a wildcard in my experience.

This made me think about how time-outs might be useful for adults in the workplace. Of course, I don’t mean that as a manager you should segregate a team member who doesn’t perform up to standard by giving him quiet time in the conference room. In some settings, that might be considered a reward, so again, that’s not what I mean. I am, however, suggesting that a self-imposed time-out might be exactly what you need to elevate your performance in a meeting or an important one-on-one conversation.

Here are a few reasons to put yourself in time-out—even if only for a few seconds—to gear up for your next high-stakes encounter. A timeout gives you an opportunity to ask and answer the following questions:

What am I trying to accomplish? One of Stephen Covey’s famous habits taught us to “Begin with the end in mind.” I couldn’t agree more; however, I think it’s important to apply deeper meaning to “end” than simply your desired result for a particular task or project. You must go deeper to examine your motives. That means going all the way to the core of who you are. Your motives explain your why. Your ability to harness these internal drives will give you the energy and courage needed to adjust our approach to achieve a fulfilling outcome—even if it means getting out of your comfort zone for a few minutes.

Who else is involved and what matters to them? Unlike an adult demanding obedience from a child, your coworkers and customers would likely resist attempts to control them through heavy-handed methods. At best, you’ll get resentful compliance that will lead to disengagement and at worst, you’ll get open defiance or a broken relationship. However, if you take the time to understand what’s most important to your stakeholders and respect those priorities as you work with them, you’ll make more progress and face less resistance.

What approach will increase my likelihood of success? Of course, we all have our tried-and-true methods for dealing with certain situations; however, it’s not likely that those methods work in every situation. This means you should be open to different approaches based on the situation and the people involved. The great news is that you have a wide array of strengths to draw as you interact with others. Think of the way you use your strengths to select the right tool for the job.

How do I communicate in the right style? Common advice for public speakers is to “know your audience.” Of course, the point of knowing your audience is that it gives you the insight needed to tailor your message to appeal to them and give them what they need to feel comfortable with your message. Often times, when we receive a less than favorable response to an email or a conversation feels strained, it’s because the style we’re using is not suited for the people involved.

Some of your time-outs will take less than a minute but can create a big payoff in the quality of your interactions. Unlike parents who impose a time-out on an unruly child, you are in control of when you take them. I’ve found that simply taking a few seconds before hitting “Send” on an email or pausing before walking into a meeting provides an opportunity to run through these questions in my mind and make the necessary adjustments. I also use the SDI Quick Guide, one of the resources provided in Core Strengths training, to gain real-time, practical advice on how to communicate with people with different motives.

In the world of parenting techniques, time-outs can be a healthy response to a child’s bad behavior. In the world of work, time-outs are the key to more productive interactions and better results.

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Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at

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