How to Stop Someone from Talking in Circles

Have you recently been in a situation when you felt like you were stuck in a conversation that was going round and round in circles that are going absolutely nowhere? 

Maybe in a meeting? 

Maybe while chatting with a colleague in the hall?

Before talking about what to do in this situation, it may be helpful to reflect on your natural approach. 

Do you tune out? 

Do you excuse yourself? 

Do you try to change the subject?

Do you interrupt to interject your perspective?

Do you start judging the person talking (in your head)?

I am a BIG fan of forward-moving progress. I LOVE when I can learn something from, or laugh at something during a conversation. In meetings, I am obsessed with efficiency. I consider time a precious resource and when there is a group of people investing time in something I want to do my part to create a high ROI, whatever that means for that group on that day. 

The way I think of meetings: what can we accomplish here that we could not accomplish with any other configuration of people.

All too often I am reminded that my approach to meetings (driving towards a magical finish line at which everyone is more aware, aligned and equipped to execute) is not a standard that everyone holds. I have been in meetings where not only one person speaks in circles, but many. It usually starts with someone giving two too many examples and then someone else jumps in with a different point/perspective altogether and wanting to make a point very clear. 

Believe it or not, it is actually possible for a group of people to get together and completely talk over one another, each leaving the room having understood very little of what the others were trying to say.

It is shocking to me that while I equate this experience to a subtle form of torture, there are many (even high functioning) people that simply have gotten used to this type of collaboration and think that is ‘how things go’.

I am here to tell you that all collaborations and conversations can be generative.

The number ONE skill that is effective when someone is speaking in circles is active listening. 

“What I hear you saying is…”

True active listening allows us to condense what someone is saying into 1-2 phrases. By using reflections, paraphrasing (sometimes pulling the meaning from underneath or between the words being used) the speaker has an opportunity to clarify (if necessary). So often being a broken record is the result of not properly feeling acknowledged, heard or understood. 

When I catch someone talking (in what feels to me like) circles, I try to challenge my listening.  Am I doing my best to understand what this person is really getting at?  Once I feel I have gotten the message, I may say something like “I want to pause you to make sure I am understanding you. What I hear you saying is…” If I have a strong rapport with someone I will call the pattern out explicitly “I am going to interrupt because it feels like we are going in a bit of a circle and I think I may be able to help by reflecting what I am hearing…” More often than not, the person is surprisingly grateful for the interruption. 

Taking the time to listen carefully and reflect on what I have heard has created incredible results.  

Try it sometime… And let me know how it goes for you.