Slowing down is literally slowing down your talking, breathing, thinking, and reacting, and noticing what's happening inside. What am you feeling? Thinking? What's happening in your body? What triggered you? Are these feelings and thoughts familiar? How does this instance relate to other times you've been upset?
Your emotional, or limbic, brain reacts in 1/200th of a second! Your cortical, thinking brain takes a lot longer to come online, and by then you may be in fight or flight mode with your partner. Your limbic brain is all about survival, and situations are read as either safe or death is impending. Additionally, your emotional brain can't tell time, so whatever is triggering you now and the original memories attached to it are all happening NOW.
Taking time to slow down and breathe and find out what's up with you does a few things. It gives you a space to sense your own experience and feelings, and it gives time for the thinking brain to come online so you have an opportunity to respond (vs. react). The point of slowing down is that you have so many more choices of response: you can become curious about what just happened, what's up with your partner, and what's going on internally. You can focus on seeking to understand your own and our partner's perspectives, needs, triggers, and especially the meanings of what occurred. (You almost never hold the same meaning in a given situation, even when you know each other very well or for a long time. I'll write about meaning in a separate post.)
How do you slow down? Part of it is to track yourself along the way. You can do this by using the idea of traffic lights (thanks to Kathryn Ford, M.D. for this tool).
Green light is go; I'm open and feeling fine in this conversation.
Yellow light is caution; I'm starting to feel triggered (I may or may not know by what). This is the time to shift from the content of the conversation (e.g., going to my in-laws for dinner) to the process of the conversation (e.g., "Yellow light. I'm noticing my breathing has changed and my gut is tight."). You have just slowed everything down. Now your partner can be curious and ask you to say more about your physical reaction. Once you are back to green light, you may continue your discussion about the in-law dinner.
Red light is stop; I've just had such a strong reaction that I am unable to listen or share my thoughts and feelings. State that you are at red light, or ask your partner if s/he's at red light. If either of your heart rates have gone up to 95, you need to take at least a 20 minute break while your body calms down and your adreneline settles to a manageable level (Gottman research). If your heart rate is up, but below 95, you can ask for a brief time out.
Often, defensiveness triggers your red light. Breathe through it, notice the wave of defensiveness rise and fall. Once it's coming back down, then share your process experience and be curious.
It's useful to actually make flash cards, two each of green, yellow, and red. Use the cards during a conversation by holding them in front of you, and changing the color showing based on how you're feeling.
Here are a few other ways of slowing down:
Breathe slowly and deeply, filling your belly first, then your chest; exhale from your chest first, then push the air out of your belly. Repeat this for a couple of minutes.
State that you want or need to slow down.
Ask your partner an open-ended curiousity question (e.g. What do you know about your feelings of going to dinners with people where there's a hightened expectation?).
Ask your partner to tell you more about whatever was just said?
Ask your partner what the meaning is to him/her of whatever was just said?
Hopefully you will experiment with the slowing down process and notice what happens inside each of you and between you.
When things escalate out of control, whichever one of you can respond, call a time out. Use your hands to make the "T" shape for the time out. Notice your body, breathing, thoughts and feelings.
Do come back to discuss the process of what just happened; eventually shift back to the content.