Some Thoughts on Loops in Interpersonal Relationships
Continuing our exploration of loops …
Some loops are entirely internal. For example, Zeigarnik discovered her effect by observing a waiter who could remember a party’s entire order only until he had served it. He then promptly forgot who had ordered what.
The loops I am more interested in are shared between people. Of those, I see two distinct sorts: loops in which only one party is active, and loops in which more than one party is active.
Let’s call the kind of loop in which the audience does not participate, a performative loop. For that sort of loop, consider the humble banana.
The other sort of loop, in which the audience participates, is a participative loop. A conversation, an argument, a handshake, a fight: any interaction between two or more people is a participative loop. Inside a performative loop, there might be many participatory loops—every question and answer passing between the speaker and the audience is a participative loop.
Performative loops are intended to capture your attention. Some things are worth your attention, and some are not. You should be able to maintain control over your attention, and filter out most of the unworthy things. Recognizing when someone is opening a performative loop at you is a good step toward maintaining that control.
Likewise, if someone opens a participative loop with you, you should be aware of the loop so that you can accept or decline. If a telemarketer asks, “How are you doing?” I can answer, or not answer, or tell him to get to the point, or just hang up.
You don’t necessarily know in the beginning whether the loop is going to be positive or negative—add value to your life or not—so you should also be able to exit or disrupt a loop when it turns negative.
As the audience, you can sometimes disrupt a performative loop by turning it into a participative loop. (Heckling comes to mind.) You can disrupt a participative loop by doing something unexpected that defies your partner’s expectations. (Being the grownup in a nasty death-spiral argument, or pulling a knife in what your partner thought was a fistfight.)
A participative loop has at least two participants, and while one of them must have started it, it’s not entirely clear to the participants who that was. So the participants are partners in the loop.
At every iteration, each partner has several options: exit the loop, disrupt the loop, continue the loop, enlarge the loop. An example of “enlarging” is improvisational theater’s “yes, and” rule: accept what your partner has given you, and build on it. Note that enlarging is value-neutral. Enlarging a positive loop should increase the positivity, but enlarging a negative loop makes things worse for you.
This is the death-spiral loop, or the race to the bottom: the loop is negative for each partner, but each partner thinks he can get the other to exit the loop if only he enlarges it enough. Consider road rage, or the Hatfields and McCoys. Usually a “teach ’em a lesson” mindset will land the partners in a race to the bottom.
You can usually avoid a death-spiral loop by recognizing that your negative behavior is not going to cause positive behavior in another person. If you find yourself in a death-spiral loop you might disrupt it it by being the bigger person—by responding to the other person’s negative behavior with positive behavior.
A loop that is positive for one partner may be negative for the other. Consider a sadist interacting with a non-masochist. Or a sociopath interacting with a non-sociopath.
Sociopaths are charming, and being in a loop with one can seem positive at first but turn really negative for you really quickly. The loop is still positive for the sociopath, though. When you disrupt the loop by turning it negative for the sociopath, that’s when you see the sociopath play victim.
Better not to get into a loop with a sociopath. But that’s just Rule One.
Charismatic people open positive participative loops. Charismatic people enlarge positive participative loops. Why is that? Because enlarging the loop demonstrates presence (you are in the moment), warmth (you are attending warmly to your partner), and personal power (you are taking the risk of a gambit that might be rejected).
Oh, about that humble banana?
When I spoke to a business fraternity at the University of Colorado a few months ago, I began by deliberately taking a ripe banana from my jacket pocket and setting it on the ledge of the whiteboard. It remained there through my talk, until at the end I explained why I had put it there.
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