20/20s: Overcoming Communication Overload
Do your relationships with loved ones sometimes feel overwhelming and confusing? If so, you’re not alone. The good news is that there are effective strategies for solving this problem. 20/20s are one of these strategies.
A 20/20 is an invaluable resource to take a break from conflict while still maintaining connection with the other person and the issue at hand. Through an intentional and specific approach, this can help to avoid the damage caused by criticism, defensiveness, and diatribes that make some meaningful conversations impossible. It provides intentionality and specificity in how to take a break from conflict, reorient, and return, without abandoning the other person or the important subject at hand. This approach can help partners to de-escalate the tension and better engage in meaningful dialogue.
In challenging conversations or arguments, couples and families often enter a diffuse physiological arousal state. Gottman was wise enough to coin an easier name for this process, calling it “flooding”. We all end up flooded with emotions or thoughts and sometimes feel disoriented or overwhelmed. Our bodies and brains (a unified system btw) warn us that we are currently activating as if we were under a physical threat. Many notice increased heart rate with tightening in fists, jaws, and brows, accompanied with changes of blood flow through gut, throat, head, etc. Flooding is a normal and healthy response to a dangerous situation, and while it is unfortunately necessary in some abusive relationships to escape physical harm, many of us are also familiar with these same mental/physical responses in non-abusive relationships. At its core, flooding is a neurobiological response that can result in a loss of cognitive clarity, patience, and compassion.
Flooding is an instinctive response that has been ingrained in us since time immemorial, allowing our ancestors to survive the most dangerous of threats. Unfortunately, this response is often misapplied in our modern lives when the threat is not physical but instead emotional.
Take a moment to reflect on your last stressful encounter with a loved one, and notice the difference between this experience and your baseline. For many of us, the feeling of facing a bear, a potential car accident, a deadly rock face, or a falling tree as less daunting than the feeling of facing our partner’s anger or rejection.
The key to understanding and soothing our own emotions is to first recognize how our ancestors’ instincts can be misapplied in our modern lives. By leveraging our awareness, we can better endure emotional threats with calm curiosity rather than panic or defensiveness after taking a 20/20.
I’ve coined the term “20/20s” to remind myself and clients of the timeframes Gottman discovered people typically need to return to a place of peace so they can engage their partners without the obstacle of feeling overwhelmed. It’s also a reminder to me that I’m looking to see things with 20/20 vision and that hindsight is more often 20/20 than what I’m capable of seeing in the middle of a conflict. Gottman asserts that most people need a minimum 20 minutes of self soothing to return to a place that cortisol and adrenaline levels are low enough to exit a flooded state, and return to a mindset capable of caring for and understanding ourselves as well as our partners/loved ones. The other 20 is for the hours of how long the max wait time can be before we start to brush things under the rug or abandon the subject, seeding resentment, contempt, or feelings of neglect for our loved ones.
When couples or families invest the time and effort into cultivating 20/20s into their relationships, they can gain a better understanding of themselves, their partners, and those they love. With a greater capacity for curiosity, compassion, and understanding, 20/20s can help create healthier, stronger relationships. So you might be wondering, “how do I take a 20/20?” By taking a few simple steps, couples and families can start to see the benefits of 20/20 relationships in their own lives.
Implementation looks like this:
- A triggering event or interaction occurs
- You notice the body responses like mentioned above along with other tells like: increased rate of speech, an inability to understand what is being said to you, an inability to express your own feelings/thoughts, a label of villain or victim that you can’t seem to shake for you or your partner, black and white thinking, an obsession with being right or pointing out how the other is wrong, a condemnation of self or other for not understanding, feeling like your head is spinning, an out-of-body sensation, a compulsion to physically engage or damage something in your surroundings, an urge to turn your back and abandon the conversation, and the list goes on…
- Rather than escalating or abandoning, you admit that you’re feeling flooded or overwhelmed and can’t quite track with the interaction/conversation anymore. Note: never use this strategy to punish or manipulate the situation, as this undermines the process and can sabotage the tool.
- State that you’ll need to take a 20/20 (or a break, breather, whatever), and communicate to the other that you will be using this time to calm so you can re-engage with an estimate on how long you think you may need (a timeframe typically between 20min-20hrs).
- Engage in a self-soothing activity of your choice, the perfect way to show your body and mind that you are not in any present danger. Kinesthetic activities, such as a bike ride, a walk in the woods or around the neighborhood, lifting weights, or a bath, can help you recognize that you are safe and in control. If you’d like, you can also bring order to your environment by folding clothes, doing dishes, or reorganizing the garage. Be mindful of activities or distractions that might increase your stress or frustration, and resist the urge to get lost in media that brings anger, sadness, aggression, or polarity. Consider this time as special self-care, as if you were caring for someone you love dearly.
- Take this time to reflect on things that are outside of the black-and-white framework. Consider how your actions or words may have made your loved one feel in the stressful interaction. Owning up to your challenges and how you felt is a way to respect yourself and invite your loved one to do the same. This process may be surprisingly refreshing and validating, rather than the miserable trap your defense systems have anticipated.
- It’s time to return to your loved one when you can have an open heart and mind with a willingness to listen to their experience for what it was; acknowledging what you can relate to even if you disagree with almost all the details implicating who’s to blame or at fault. Share your more tinder emotions (the ones underneath anger, frustration, irritation, or whatever else we rationalize as a “safer” emotion to share). Reflect on other times you may have felt that way that didn’t involve your loved one. Make sure to avoid any “you” statements of criticism or justification.
- There’s no need to agree on everything or have a warm & fuzzy moment. It’s more important to understand and to be understood than to get caught up in “facts”, details, or opinions. Remind yourself that even eye-witness accounts of crimes are typically only 50% accurate.
20/20s are our last line of defense. They are used as a boundary when we have no other option. There are many other “softer” boundaries that help us stay with our loved ones in times of challenge and are preferable to the 20/20, but they’re usually easier to cultivate after we’ve lowered the threat levels and done our work in counseling.