Here we are in early January, with the sparkle and excitement of the holidays behind us. The days may be getting a tiny bit longer, but short, cold, foggy days create perfect conditions for restlessness and frustration. The days seem bleak, with a long wait to spring. We tend to get a bit crabby and argumentative. Fuses get short and tempers flare. Sometimes disagreements escalate so quickly that much damage is done without intending to do so.

What if a conversation is heating-up and you don’t want things to get out of hand? The best thing you can do when you feel tension rising is to pause and breathe. Yes, there really is something to the old rule of counting to ten before responding when you’re upset.

Stopping to take a breath helps in several ways. Most basically, it gives your body the oxygen it needs, since we tend to hold our breath when we tense-up, either in anger or fear of a clash. Continuing to provide oxygen lets the cells of our body know that everything is still okay, there’s no need to panic, you can handle this.

Pausing also gives you the necessary seconds to shift your thinking from the defensive part of your brain to the more rational part. Research into the human brain has discovered that we actually use a different, older part of our brains to process information when we get angry. That part works very fast, faster than the portions that can consider choices and options. The Angry Brain is focused only on defense, not on the long-term consequences of how you’re fighting.

So, once you’ve taken a breather, what should you do with the time you’ve given yourself to respond? You could check to make sure you correctly heard what the other person said. A simple, “Could you please repeat that, I’m not sure I understood?” would work. A very effective technique is to repeat what you thought you heard and check whether that’s what they actually said. (Given the hilarious results of the childhood Telephone Game, it’s a wonder we ever get anything right!)

Once you understand the words, you could explore what they meant by what they said. Maybe it was nothing personal to you; they are just feeling bad about something else and unintentionally took it out on you because you were there.

You may decide to stay and talk with the other person, continuing the conversation by listening to them and sharing how you feel. On the other hand, you may decide you need to get some distance from the other person by going to a different part of the building or immersing yourself in a project. Or you could decide you really want to stay and keep up the fight, dealing with the consequences later. The point is to give yourself the time to consider if there’s something you’d rather do than have an argument.

Remembering to pause can be a challenge. After all, you’re retraining a strong habitual response. But the more you practice pausing, the easier it will become – you will be creating a new pattern in your brain. You will be taking some small, but positive control of your life.

The pause to breathe gives you just enough time to help you choose a response you can be proud of, rather than stomping out the door in a huff, blurting out something hurtful that will make the conflict much worse, or agreeing to something ridiculous just to end the dispute. In addition to being effective, taking a few seconds is very efficient: it would take more than the count of ten to undo the harm of those angry responses.