Circular Conversations


Circular Conversations - Arguments which go on almost endlessly, repeating the same patterns with no resolution.

Spinning the Wheels in a Rut:

A Circular Conversation happens when both parties have opposing positions on an issue, dig in, and reiterate the merits of their position ad nauseum. It doesn’t end with resolution, it ends either with one or both people giving up from sheer exhaustion.

Circular conversations can last hours, days, weeks, months, years, even a lifetime. When you think about it for a moment, the only reason people would subject themselves to that is they retain the hope that at some point the other person will change their mind, see their point of view, learn something, recognize their mistake and be persuaded that they were wrong all along. Logic would suggest that after two or three times around the loop most people would give up, but many of us don’t. We go over and over.

Circular Conversations often occur when the issue we are debating feels like a “bottom line issue” or represents a deal-breaker. Often, the argument begins over something superficial. For example, it may be about who should turn out the light or who should say “I’m sorry”. These can become circular arguments if the disagreement becomes a proxy for an underlying feeling, such as “I feel disrespected”, “I feel hurt” or “I feel afraid”. When this happens, the argument can continuously revolve around superficial details while the underlying feelings remain unresolved.

What it feels like:

When we argue, we are often trying to communicate feelings. However when there’s tension in the air and we think the other person is not validating our position, we often feel too vulnerable to express our feelings. Instead, we tend to abstract or represent our feelings in the form of a position, an issue or an event such as “You lied to me”, or “You’re being insensitive”, or even, “I hate you”. The bottom line is  we will not be satisfied until we believe the underlying feeling beneath our statements is resolved, addressed or acknowledged.

When someone with a Personality Disorder enters this dynamic, you may just have the recipe for a never-ending circular discussion. That is because someone with a Personality Disorder is not always able to see the same reality that you see. To some people with Personality Disorders, the way they feel dictates to them what the facts are. This can be described as Feelings Creating Facts. So to them, if they feel betrayed, then you are a betrayer. If they feel loved, then you areloving. If they feel afraid, then you are dangerous. If their feelings match up to your reality, that’s great! You will be wonderfully validated, incredibly appreciated and deeply and sincerely loved. However, when their feelings do not line up with yours, it is going to be a long night.

People with Personality Disorders have all the regular human emotions. They naturally want to be validated and accepted. The problem is that their representation of reality, while valid to them, is not always factual. They may start talking to you in a way you can’t accept, endorse or agree with. You may find it impossible to reach resolution. It won’t change until they feel different, which might take a few minutes, or a few years.

Coping With Circular Conversations:

What NOT to Do:

  • Don't repeat anything you have already said.
  • Don't explain or respond to a question that you have already answered.
  • Don't engage in aggressive acts such as slamming doors or storming out.
  • Don't try to get the last word.
  • Don't wait for your feelings to be validated.
  • Don't try to change the other person's mind. Their thoughts and beliefs and feelings are their own.
  • Don't try to manipulate the other person's feelings. Don't try to make them feel guilt, remorse or sympathy.
  • Don't spend airtime describing the other person's behavior, feelings or actions - focus on describing your own needs and feelings.
  • Don’t wait for agreement or consensus to end the conversation. It’s normal and healthy for two people to arrive at disagreement, different conclusions and different interpretations of the same events.

What TO Do:

  • Recognize the pattern. Acknowledge that you are in a conversation that is just going around and around.
  • Accept that feelings aren’t inherently good or bad - they just are. Feelings are a byproduct of circumstances, emotions, brain chemistry and a host of other things. You can’t control the way you feel, neither can the person with the personality disorder - the way you feel is just a natural reaction to your experience.
  • Switch from stating facts to stating feelings. Describe your own feelings not the other person's. Don't say "I feel like you are lying". That is not a feeling. That is an opinion. Say "I feel scared" or "I feel hurt". You don't have to say why, just say it. The wonderful thing about stating your feelings is that nobody can contradict you, although people might try. Nobody knows or owns your feelings except you.
  • End the conversation, calmly and with your dignity intact. If you like, you can say, "I need a break" or "Let's discuss this later" and end it there.