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How To End Circular Conversations

One of the most frustrating and draining things in the world, is a circular conversation. Circular conversation has a way of causing people to shut down to communication all together.

A circular conversation is a conversation, usually an argument, that goes on endlessly, repeating the same patterns with no resolution. Circular conversations can appear as one, seemingly endless argument. Or as an argument that seems settled, only to repeat again, as if the first conflict to resolution cycle never happened.

This can happen when:

  1. Both parties have opposing positions on an issue and they are so committed to their positions that all they do, is dig in and repeat and reiterate the merits of their position.
  2. When the circular conversation is in and of itself giving something to a person. For example, it can often serve as a smokescreen for a boundary someone is unwilling to express and stand by. 
  3. The parties have not gotten to the root of what a conflict is actually about and the surface argument is actually about something deeper and more vulnerable. 

Frist, you have to decide which of these three things is happening. If it is the first, where both parties have opposing positions on an issue and they are committed to their positions, no resolution or pseudo-resolution will have been reached at any point. It will feel like wheels spinning furiously in a rut. Like both people’s heels are dug in and they won’t budge. It is a standoff. 

If it is the second, you are likely to see a pattern of pseudo-resolution. An argument will seem as if it is settled. Realizations have occurred, agreements have been reached, a solution has been agreed to and then… The same argument happens again, as if the first conversation never occurred. A person may have the same realizations over and over again and offer the same solution again. And this can go on and on, as if the two parties are stuck in the movie Groundhog’s Day. This form of circular conversation tends to makes you feel like you are going insane or start to wonder if the other person is either insane or stupid. 

If it is the third kind of circular conversation, one or both parties involved will seem totally stuck on something on the surface that has happened or that keeps happening. To the outside, it will seem like an easy thing to fix. And yet, nothing is working. Perhaps no solution they have come up with, or agreement they have reached, has worked either. They keep having the same argument over and over again. 

With the first, type one circular conversation, both people have something they value and something they fear that they are holding dear. This is often where common ground can be found. And usually, the surface conversation doesn’t address these things. Either side will only start to budge if the other accommodates for their value and their fear. On top of this, the vast majority of the time, this kind of circular conversation happens because of a disconnect that is happening somewhere. The two people are usually reacting to two different things, but are assuming that they are discussing the same thing. It is easier to uncover this disconnect by understanding the minutia and asking both people to explain their reasoning, all the way down to explaining their definition of a word they are using.

So that you can understand this better, here is an example. Bob is in a heated conversation with Nicolas. They both work at a financial firm. They have been assigned to the task of reporting data from several different departments to the CEO. And they are in a meeting to discuss how to gather that data. Nicolas and Bob are in a dead lock. Nicolas’s stance is: “We need to tell the managers in charge of each department that we need them to collect this data for us.” Bob ‘s stance is: No, we can’t do that. Every time we do that, the managers don’t respond and the consequences come down on us.” They have been going around in circles for hours trying to prove their point. And trying to disprove each other’s points. 

To get out of the circular conversation, Bob starts asking questions to understand what Nicolas values (ie: deeply wants and needs) as well as what he is afraid of (what he is trying to avoid in this situation). He discovers that Nicolas really, really does not want to underperform. He is the kind of person whose self-esteem is deeply attached to his performance. Bob also does not want to underperform. That is their common ground. He also self reflects to see that he is afraid of wasting energy and time. He HATES inefficiency. Bob wants to get the job done, so he can go back to focusing on other things. that is what he values.  

So, first, Bob expresses the common ground he sees by telling Nicolas that he doesn’t want to underperform either, accommodating the fear Nicolas has that Bob is going to be an adversary, rather than advocate for peak performance. This causes Nicolas to soften his stance a bit. He goes further to reassure Nicolas that they will both make sure the job they do is up to or beyond standard. He expressed to Nicolas that he really does not want to be inefficient. And that his big worry is time and being sidetracked from something super important he has been working on. Nicolas realizes that the issue with Bob is really about fear of inefficiency, not the idea of involving managers full stop. 

They then move on to trying to uncover the disconnect by understanding the minutia and explaining their reasoning. Bob says “Nicolas, I’m confused about what exactly you are proposing. Can you go into detail about how you think we should go about getting the data from the managers?”

Nicolas explains “I want to fly to each branch of the company to meet with managers face to face so that I can explain what data I need, and put pressure on them to give it to me before I leave.” Bob feels instantly relieved. The whole time he was arguing to not involve managers because they never respond, he was arguing about the ineffectiveness of e-mailing or calling them on the phone. He was reacting to something different than Nicolas was actually suggesting. And Nicolas was reacting to something different than what was real about Bob’s actual resistance. Yet they were squared off in a zero-sum game rather than creating pliability by caretaking each other’s best interests. And they were convinced they were talking about the same thing, when they actually weren’t. They quickly reached a mutually beneficial agreement that Nicolas would put in the leg work and Bob would consolidate and organize all the information as Nicolas sent it to him while he was on the road.    

           With the second, type two circular conversation, the circular conversation in and of itself, is serving as a smokescreen or avoidance tactic, usually for one person in the conversation. For example, it can be a placation tactic in a situation where a person has no intention of changing something, but wants the pressure temporarily taken off of them. Or it can be a way that a person buys themselves time to come up with something else. Or it can be a way of upholding a boundary while gaslighting the other person that the boundary doesn’t exist. With this kind of circular conversation, what is important to know is that there is some truth underneath the conversation itself. And that thing is not being addressed. 

So that you can understand this better, here is an example: Jessica and David got a golden doodle last month. The puppy needs to be potty trained. Every time Jessica leaves David with the goldendoodle, the puppy pees inside the house. And she comes home to have to clean it. This is the third time she has had the fight with David about having to take the puppy out to pee. Jessica is at the point where she feels like she literally can’t ever leave the house or leave David in charge of the puppy. She yells at David that she feels like a single mother. Every time they have this fight, David apologizes and re-realizes that he needs to stop working on his computer frequently to pay attention to the dog and take him out to pee. He tells Jessica that he is setting a timer, so he doesn’t get distracted. But the same thing keeps happening. And soon, Jessica feels like she is a broken record on repeat. And so is David. She hears herself saying the exact same things and David saying the exact same things. And yet, nothing actually changes. She feels powerless to David, who keeps breaking his word. Soon, Jessica wizens up to the fact that David never forgets the things he actually cares about. And when she begins to wonder what David is getting out of the whole cycle, she starts to see that underneath the cyclical arguments, the reality is that all the responsibility for the dog is actually on her. So, she realizes that she must uncover the truth that is being hidden underneath the circular arguments. Jessica asks David, what is really happening here? She doesn’t let him get away with any of the answers he has gotten away with before. Jessica confronts him on the pattern that he is in, and on the fact that she cannot stay committed to a person who keeps agreeing to things, only to break his word. She starts digging at what is underneath his behavior. Eventually, David admits that he doesn’t actually want a dog. He acted enthusiastic about the dog and went to pick one out because he wanted Jessica to be happy. He, himself has no interest in taking care of a dog. And he admits that he is afraid that if he asserts the boundary (especially given that he said yes to the dog originally when he didn’t really mean yes) that Jessica is going to fly onto a rage. And David hates conflict. Now, they can have the real conversation about what the conflict is really about. 

To avoid these kinds of type two circular conversations, you need to remember that what should be happening in a conversation is that someone understands something and based on that understanding, an agreement is reached. And because of that understanding and agreement, you see actual changes. If they didn’t actually understand something or agree with something they should be initiating further dialogue, initiating trying to understand and putting energy towards finding resolve. When a circular conversation is giving someone something, the person it is giving something to, is likely to be avoidant rather than proactive about improving a situation and reaching resolve with the other person. The circular conversation in and of itself becomes a form of passive aggression. Usually because the circular conversation is the way they are hiding a personal truth or boundary that they have and do not want to overtly assert.    

With the third, type three kind of circular conversation, the reason the argument keeps happening and no agreement or resolution works, is because one or both parties are not talking about the real, root issue. And so, nothing can be fixed. When this is the case, both parties have to ask themselves (and each other) questions to dig beneath what is happening, down to the real, raw, vulnerable WHY below their complaint: Questions like, why does this hurt me so much? What does it make me afraid of? What do I make it mean? If this never stopped, why would that be so bad? And then, the conversation needs to be about those deeper things.   

So that you can understand this better, here is an example: Sandy is sick and tired of being the one to have to do far more than her fair share of chores around the house. Marielle is a party animal who prefers to leave every adult responsibility for later in favor of fun. They are now seeing a relationship counselor. Marielle is not responsive to Sandy’s need for the house to be clean at all times. And their agreement for Marielle to keep the house clean during the week days, but be able to not worry about it on Friday and Saturday just isn’t working. Sandy is ready to call it quits and Marielle does not understand why this seemingly little issue is big enough to threaten the whole relationship. They have fought over the house being clean over and over and over for months. Only a little bit of prodding reveals that there is a much bigger issue under the surface of the clean house argument. It is that Sandy feels like Marielle is taking advantage of her by using her as a stable and secure base camp, so she can go out and indulge in her interests in other people when she parties. Sandy does not feel loved. She feels Marielle prefers the company of others and is taking her for granted. And just like that, suddenly the conversation can become about what the problem is really about. The solution to which, is totally different than the surface action of cleaning a house. 

On top of all of this advice, drawing attention to the fact that a conversation is circular, is always a good idea. And so is using reflective phrasing, where you listen and then reflect back what you heard the person say, so that they feel understood and have the opportunity to clarify.  Such as: “What I hear you saying is…” 

Circular conversations can suck the life out of you, but the good news is, with the right strategy, you can put an end to them for good. 


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