How To Shift An Unproductive Communication Spiral

How To Shift An Unproductive Communication Spiral

Ever feel like you are stuck in a frustrating and unproductive communication spiral?  One where you, and the other involved, keep saying the same things but nothing is getting resolved? At times like this, you probably feel like you’ve tried everything humanly possible to get the other person to understand you, but it simply isn’t working.  Hmm, but have you really?

This happened to me recently, and I felt like I had entered some crazy vortex where everything that was once clear had suddenly become confusing.  At one point, the discussion got so convoluted, I seriously considered whether my communication “participant” was experiencing the onset of some sort of medical emergency.  To say we reached a point of unproductive communication would have been an understatement.

Situations like this can be pretty unsettling for a communication expert. This is what I do for goodness sakes, and I’m sitting there realizing I may as well be speaking a foreign language.  Please be assured, we weren’t arguing, we just weren’t successfully communicating. Things that had been worked through long ago were back on the table, as though it was the first time they had ever come up, and the discussion was going round and round like a merry-go-round.  Every time I thought we had gotten out of the loop, here it came again.

So what does a communication expert do when she finds herself stuck in an unproductive communication spiral?

She does her best to get out of it, of course!  This time it took me about twenty minutes too long to accept “today might not be the day” for any kind of break-through or positive shift.  My communication partner was way too whipped-up, entrenched in old war stories, and wrapped in a rock-solid victim status to engage in anything productive. Indeed, it was my duty to get out of the loop – for both our sakes.

If you’ve heard me speak, or participated in one of our workshops, you know I believe the first step to clarity is always awareness.  Awareness of what is going on with you first, and then considering what might be happening with the other person.  This time, as soon as I became self-aware enough to accept I was participating in an unproductive communication spiral, I gained the clarity I needed to make a new choice and get out of it.

Here’s how it went:

Me: “It feels like we are going in circles. Can we set aside the old stories and comparisons for a minute, and may I ask you one question?”

The other: “Yes.”

Me:What is it that you need?”

< Eight-to-ten seconds of silence >

The other: “I don’t know…” Met with another moment of silence.

One simple question.  That’s all it took to divert the wound-up energy enough to slow the thoughts down, and create the space needed to shift the unproductive cycle. We were then able to have a short, productive dialogue.  Less than five minutes later, with both of us calm and friendly, we wrapped-up with a two-step plan and moved on to our next agenda items for the day.

As frustrating as unproductive communication spirals can be (for everyone involved), they are actually very easy to get out of without offending anyone or damaging the relationship. The next time you find yourself in a spiral, slow yourself down enough to ask one clarifying question. Then be quiet and listen.

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