Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Stop a Conversation From Going in Circles

Have you ever sat in a meeting and listened while the conversation went around and around in circles? It’s a frustrating experience—and one that sometimes leads to the faulty conclusion that discussion is a hindrance to action. Talking is actually critically important to good decision-making in organizations, but you have to do it right.

Here’s why discussions get “stuck”—and what you can do about it.

What’s Really Going on Here?

Conversations often go in circles when everyone is advocating their own opinion. The catch? Most of the time, people don’t know what it is they are disagreeing on! There’s usually a misunderstanding somewhere, but everyone has assumed that the misunderstanding is actually a difference of opinion. The key, then, is to find the misunderstanding and get everyone on the same page.

To do that, you have to understand a little about how our minds work. Our brains take neutral facts and, through a subconscious, lightening-fast process, give them meaning and form beliefs about them. Those beliefs are usually what come out of our mouths when we are discussing the facts at hand.

Let’s walk this back to the beginning: Every day, we are bombarded with information—sights, sounds, smells, words, colors, and more are all around us, and we unconsciously pick and choose what to take in, while filtering out everything we find unimportant. This is the first rung of what psychologist Chris Argyris called the “Ladder of Inference.”

Courtesy of Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline"

Once we select our data, we give it the meaning that our personal experience and culture dictates, we draw conclusions, and it becomes a “belief.” This is the stage of the ladder we all get stuck on from time to time—and this is the stage everyone is in when a conversation is going in circles.

What Can You Do About It?

It’s all well and good to understand this phenomenon, but raising your hand in a meeting and asking everyone to walk back down their ladder of inference is probably not going to be very helpful. So, how can you effectively move the conversation forward?

According to Dr. Ray Luechtefeld, PhD, an organizational consultant and professor of management at the University of Central Missouri, you ask people to explain their reasoning—sometimes down to the definition of a word they are using.

To illustrate this, he tells a true story about two of his students who were in conflict with each other, “Joe” and “Sally.” Sally was giving Joe poor evaluations in class, so Luechtefeld sat down with both of them and asked Sally why she rated Joe poorly. “[He’s] not applying what we’re learning in class,” she responded. Joe insisted that he was, indeed, applying what he was learning in class. “He meant he was making connections at his father’s business [where he worked],” said Luechtefeld. But Sally meant he wasn’t applying it there in the classroom. “‘Applying’ meant different things to each of them,” Luechtefeld learned—and all because he challenged them to describe their differences rather than continuing to bicker fruitlessly.

In other words, Luechtefeld knows that the power lies in bringing out the true areas of disagreement—the tacit assumptions or conclusions each side is drawing. “You have to get to something everybody can observe and agree on. You get back to the directly observable data,” he says. And that’s the answer: The key to intervening like a pro and getting the conversation back on track is to ask questions about what data your colleagues are using to reach their conclusions.

For another example, let’s say your team has been tasked with reporting a set of operational metrics to the CEO, and you’re in a meeting discussing how to gather the necessary data from other departments. Your colleague Steve says, “We should just tell the managers of all the departments that we need this data from them for the CEO.”

Another colleague, Valerie, says, “We’ve tried that before, the managers never respond.”

“We haven’t tried this before—you don’t know what they’re going to do!” says Steve.

Valerie replies “Yes we have! We tried it with a project we did just last spring. We never heard anything back. We have to find a different way to get the numbers we need.”

This goes on for several minutes.

That’s when you step in and say, “Steve, I’m not sure I know what it is exactly that you are proposing. Can you tell me how we should go about getting the data?”

Steve explains that he wants to meet face-to-face with each manager to describe what data is needed. You notice a sheepish look on Valerie’s face. You say “Valerie, I understand that you’ve had trouble gathering data from other departments in the past. How did you go about it before?”

Valerie sighs, “Well, in the past we never met face-to-face with the managers. We sent them emails and asked for the data.”

“I’m not suggesting that at all,” Steve says, “I want to meet with them and explain what we need.”

Voilà! Valerie was reacting to something different than what Steve was proposing, yet they both assumed they were discussing the same thing. By stepping in and asking each person to be more specific, you were able to find the real disconnect and set the conversation back on track.

The “disconnect” won’t always surface after just one question, so keep asking for clarification. Listen carefully to the answers, ask more questions, and repeat as necessary. Trust me, from the outside it looks like you are the wisest person in the room, but it’s just a little bit of group psych savvy!

Want to make an even more positive impact? Remember this process before the conversation gets off track. When you state your data or opinion, be as clear as possible about the conclusions you’re drawing. Be aware of your assumptions and divulge them where appropriate. Luechtefeld’s professor in graduate school, Diana McLain Smith, said that if a conversation is going in circles, it means everyone is standing at the top of their ladder of inference, shouting at each other. Now, you know how to help them down.

Photo of kids playing courtesy of Shutterstock.