How to End Circular Conversations

Quick quiz here to see whether you need to read further:
  • Are you becoming a "counselor" to a friend or coworker who has problems bigger than you feel qualified to handled?
  • Do you feel drained or depressed after talking with this coworker or friend?
  • Are you really helping the person who seems to be going in circles--or simply delaying their getting to the real source and resolution for the problem?

Some people have been having the same conversations for a lifetime. They tell you what a terrible job they have. They give you a weekly run-down on their love affair that's in jeopardy. They ask for -- but never take -- advice on a new business venture.

Of course, friendship means that you lend an ear and offer a soft shoulder to someone with a problem. But going in circles through the same conversation week after week, month after month helps no one. In fact, such conversations can delay real action and resolutions for the person needing help.

So if such conversations take valuable time and sap your emotional energy, consider a different way to help rather than going in circles. For example:

  • Try to focus these repetitive, rambling speakers by asking questions: "So what do you think the next step should be?" "So what specifically do you want me to do at this point?" So, "What do you plan to do now?" "So how have things/your plans/the relationship changed? Is this something different from what we've discussed before?"

  • Ask about past advice and action: If the conversation is one in which someone repeatedly asks your advice but doesn't take it, ask: "What did you decide to do about my last suggestion?" "I'm afraid you won't find my current advice any more usable than what I offered last time."
  • Be direct: "Gee, I'd really like to be able to offer some help, but I've exhausted all my ideas on the situation." Or: "I really empathize with your situation. And I wish I could say something to help. But it looks as though I have nothing more to offer that can shed light on this situation. Maybe a professional counselor could help."
  • Ask permission to change the subject: "I'm beginning to become as emotionally involved and upset about the situation as you are. Do you mind if we change the subject?"
  • Refer other resources to them: Tell them you are definitely not qualified to advise them. Offer resources for professional counselors, small-business advisors, or mentors with appropriate expertise.
  • If necessary, repeat the above steps. Again. And again.

    I tend to agree with humorist Mark Twain about the hopelessness of the foregoing conversations: "Few sinners have been saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon." No matter what the sermon and the situation.