How to get out of Circular Conversations?
February 4, 2019 7:45 PM   Subscribe

Yesterday I was stuck in one for 20 plus minutes! A fellow volunteer was telling me how their previous session went and they repeated the same 5 sentences about 5 times each. I can't leave, I tried to change the subject and even bring in a third person to help, but they kept circling. I need tips on how to stop that in the future.

I have a friend that I speak with about 3 times per week and they do the same thing. It is not as bad in a single conversation (maybe 3 repeats), but I still get to hear the same thing in multiple conversations. Often it is them defending themselves against someone else's criticism. I have said outright to them that they don't have to defend themselves to me and they say, "I know" and just keep going. They have anxiety, but this is affecting my own anxiety levels now.
I guess I need different strategies for the one-off person and the friend.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Redirect, with a positive and agreeable attitude: ‘Oh yeah I understand! That reminds me of when...(literally anything else)’. Repeat as necessary, possibly with anecdotes of decreasing relevance until they loose interest in talking at you. As long as you’re positive and pleasant you’ll be alright.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:50 PM on February 4

"Hey, sorry to cut you off but I've really gotta pee!" Can't argue with that.
posted by kitty teeth at 8:48 PM on February 4 [14 favorites]

Grab your phone, ask to be excused and that you really need to get this. ‘This’ could be a phone call, a text or a hey, a Facebook meme. Then mouth thanks for the chat and flee.
posted by Jubey at 9:07 PM on February 4

Maybe they repeat themselves until they feel heard? Have you tried paraphrasing what they’ve said to you the first time, in hopes that stops the cycle?

That’s, all I got. Otherwise, yeah. Make an excuse and leave :-(
posted by greermahoney at 9:21 PM on February 4 [13 favorites]

Hey, sorry, , hit me up later but I need to run.
posted by East14thTaco at 9:44 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Do you ever try to really dive in? Explore the space. Give them many “yes and”s. Help them think through and resolve this. If you can’t get away or change the subject then really commit to going on this journey with them. I dunno if it’ll work but it’s worth a try.
posted by bleep at 9:47 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

It may be too blunt for your needs, but I'll sometimes start finishing people's sentences for them when they start going in loops like that. It's worked on a few people.
posted by Candleman at 11:36 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

With the volunteer, the pee trick is a good one. (Speaking of which, I should take my own advice in a certain situation.)

With the friend, I think a more direct approach is warranted. Let them know that the repetition of emotionally fraught matters (which is what they are) is disturbing to you and you're going to need them to cut way back on it, otherwise you'll need to start cutting the conversations short. If they don't heed that, then do in fact cut the conversations short and do a slow fade if necessary.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:42 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Have you tried addressing it directly, with something like “I know, you said” or “we've already been down that road” + subject change?

I can imagine lots of reasons for this - nervousness/social awkwardness (i.e. not being sure what else to talk about and reaching for the nearest topic in a panic), an inability to tell whether you’ve understood the thing, an anxious desire to ruminate on this particular thing, general self-centeredness, a failing memory. I’m guessing the best strategy might depend on the reason.
posted by eirias at 5:27 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

It's probably easier being you hearing the five repeats than the five thousand that are in their own head. Some people have a very persistent/insistent narrator voice. I definitely advocate on the side of gentleness. A kind look, a palm-out "stop" hand, saying, "I hear you, I hear you, let's not circle around again." And then change the subject.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:39 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Sometimes people repeat themselves when they think the other person isn't listening--perhaps it would help to reflect back what they say? This affirms that you have heard.

e.g. someone says (for the third time): "I'm just tired of always being in the doghouse." You reply, "you're tired of always being in the doghouse."
posted by Morpeth at 5:58 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]

Echoing others (ha!) that paraphrasing and reflecting, in a sincere way, can often make this behavior calm down.
posted by lazuli at 6:27 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

Years ago I worked with a circular talker who was a truly lovely human being, but her habit of circular talking obscured that and people would go way out of their way to avoid talking to her. It was fairly profound, and she was aware she did it, but couldn't seem to break the habit.

My approach was to try to control the conversation whenever I needed a quick answer to something, and simply but firmly say something like "yup, you covered that already, thanks so much for the information" or "I got that part, I really need to know about _____." This was doubly painful because I was raised not to interrupt people when they are talking and it pains me to do so.

I recommend kindness and firmness if possible. Don't pretend it doesn't happen, and if you can cope, don't avoid the person because of it. Maybe they'll change, maybe they'll get a little better, or maybe they won't change at all - as long as you can redirect them or set a conversational boundary, it's something you can work with.

Good luck!
posted by jzb at 6:33 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

With what Morpeth said-- also check to see if you are trying to hurry the conversation along by saying "right" or "gotcha" quickly, or making little affirmative noises the second they are done speaking, or a tiny bit before they are done. People who perseverate a lot are set off by this, or even by feeling like you are doing this. It's a vicious cycle. Better to assure them in so many words that you've understood it already.
posted by BibiRose at 7:19 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

Ask them about it. Sometimes it’s about needing to make sure something is addressed that seemed to fall through the tracks when brought up previously. With a friend you could say “you’ve mentioned x a few times, it seems like that’s really on your mind. How can I help?”

In a more professional setting “you mentioned x. I think we’ve covered that pretty well: we’ve established that it’s being address through a,b and c. Is there anything else that needs to be addresssed w/r/t x?” If yes, listen. If no, “ok we can put x to bed and move on to y.”
posted by bunderful at 8:39 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]

Someone very close to me repeats and goes around in circles when they are processing something that's on their mind. I've tried paraphrasing back to them to show them that they are heard, but that doesn't always work. I've started to just directly say, "I can see this is really occupying your mind. What specifically can I say or do that would help right now?" And sometimes they say they just want to hear me say that the situation is actually a bad one and they are not irrational to be occupied with it. I also say, "I really need to take a break from this subject because it's stressing me out," or timebox them to 15 minutes. I am able to do that because I am very close to this person. I wouldn't suggest this for casual acquaintances.
posted by matildaben at 10:40 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]

I have an employee like this. I wait until we have begun the second cycle of repetition and talk gently to her as I start moving to the bathroom/to get a drink. She will walk with me then go to her cube. I love her, she is great at her job, but she will talk you to death so you always have to cut her off.
posted by emjaybee at 5:19 PM on February 5

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