What to do when your conversation is going backwards
Have you ever felt close to an agreement – or at least an understanding – with someone, and then out of nowhere they go back to square one and start rehashing the same old arguments?
It probably feels like you’ve made no progress. You might give up, thinking you just can’t get through to this person. You might feel angry or frustrated. You might think you can reason your way out of the situation by explaining how you’ve already discussed and disposed of these issues. None of those responses are likely to get you any closer to a solution. So, what should you do?
First, pause. This is a situation where you want to respond, not react. Take a breath and remind yourself that this is probably not an indication that all hope is lost. Then, get curious. What might this particular person, in this particular conversation, be trying to accomplish by rehashing these issues?
Some common reasons why your conversation seems to be going in reverse:
- The other person didn’t feel like you heard them the first time. I know, you did hear them. And they moved on to other issues, so they must know you heard them, right? Maybe not. People move past unresolved issues for all kinds of reasons, and this person might not be convinced that you understood. If you can ask questions with friendly curiosity, listen with an open mind, and demonstrate understanding of their feelings and concerns, you might be able to move right past this roadblock. You’ll know this is addressing the issue if your listening and understanding seems to provide them with relief. If it just winds them up, it is probably time to try something else. Remember to watch out for your tone. If you ask “cross-examination” style questions, or approach them with impatience or contempt, you will make things worse.
- The conversation is moving too quickly. What you experience as great progress might feel rushed to someone else, and rehashing issues might be a way of getting some extra time. If the other person needs that time because they feel pressured, just slowing down or taking a break can be very helpful. (And taking a break is almost always a good thing to try when you feel stuck.) If the other person responds by continuing to delay, it’s time to explore their reasons. There is probably a very good – or at least very interesting – reason why they don’t want to be done with the dispute just yet.
- The other person has not actually been agreeing with you. You could be dealing with someone who has a different communication style than you do, and what you are interpreting as agreement is actually any number of other things – for example: politeness, aversion to conflict, a protective response to behavior that they interpret as aggressive… If you’re saying “we already covered that and you agreed to do this,” and they’re saying “I agreed to no such thing, I just didn’t see the point in arguing with you,” then you didn’t actually have an agreement, and you’re getting a second chance to address issues that were swept under the rug the first time around. Before you jump back into the issues, explore the reasons for the misunderstanding so you can avoid repeating it. This is also a good time to remind yourself to double check along the way when you think you’ve resolved something.
- Going back over the issues is just part of the other person’s decision-making process. This means that it feels like you’ve gone back to square one, but you actually haven’t. This is just a way for them to organize their thoughts at the end of a discussion. If you’re dealing with someone you know well, you can probably recognize this aspect of their personality. If you don’t know them well, you might run through a few of the ideas above before you realize that this is just something they do. But if you can avoid being drawn into an argument and you maintain an attitude of patience and curiosity, they will talk things through and come to a decision.
What if you’re the one who feels compelled to revisit earlier issues as you get close to an agreement? Examine that impulse! We often don’t really know our own reasons for doing things, so we can’t ask for what we need effectively. If you can get in touch with your own reasons for revisiting issues, you can address them without requiring anyone else to play detective.