Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the famous comedy duo, made a priceless film in 1927, portraying themselves as entrepreneurs trying to sell Christmas trees door-to-door in Los Angeles.
At their first stop, they were rudely rejected by a curmudgeonly resident. Offended by his attitude, they repeatedly rang his doorbell and re-solicited his business. Finally, in frustration, he grabbed the tree they were offering and threw it into the street.
Outraged, they tore off his porch light. Reciprocally outraged, he rushed out to the street and ripped off the headlight from their truck.
Things quickly escalated. At each cycle, they did something more damaging to his house, to which he responded by perpetrating further violence on their truck. Soon they had pretty well thrashed his house, and he had turned their truck into a pile of wreckage.
The police got involved, and—well, you'd have to see it to appreciate it.
This little fifteen-minute drama recapitulates one of the oldest, most painful dynamics of the human experience: the escalating tit-for-tat conflict in which each of the protagonists believes him- or herself to be the aggrieved party. I call it the toxic loop. After showing the Laurel and Hardy film in a workshop on social intelligence, I like to ask two questions: 1) Who started it? and 2) Who won?
Toxic loops are remarkably common in everyday human interaction. The dissatisfied customer says something sarcastic, to which the service employee reacts in kind. A simple conversation between a husband and wife hits a snag and turns into a bitter argument - often over nothing of consequence. An aggressively expressed political opinion triggers a heated debate, with the exchange of ever increasing personal insults. A supervisor points out some shortfall in job performance, the employee responds aggressively, and they fall into a cycle of trading accusations.
Many years ago I made an important personal decision: to stop arguing with people. It turned out to be one of the most valuable decisions I've ever made. It has freed me from stress, negative feelings, and the compulsive need to "be right." I didn't give up on influencing other people, or inviting them to change their minds - I just acknowledged the futility of trying to bully them into agreeing with me.
It would be unrealistic to hope to avoid all conflicts in life - there are just too many circumstances in which the purposes of the parties are not aligned. But I've often wondered how many of the smaller, everyday negative loops we fall into could be prevented or aborted.
We have at least two options for freeing ourselves from toxic loops, and preserving our peace of mind: 1) see them coming, and refuse to be baited into participating; and 2) become aware that we've fallen into them, and simply stop participating. Both require an certain degree of mindfulness, a concept that's becoming ever more appealing to enlightened people these days.
The first option might be easier than it seems, once we've turned on our "loop detector." By staying alert for the provocative statement, the sarcastic comment, the accusation - implied or overt, the intolerant or bigoted diatribe, we can make choices about how we will reply. To quote the revered Dalai Lama: "Sometimes silence is the best answer."
Breaking out of toxic loops once we have fallen into them requires the ability to self-observe while engaged with a situation. Our inner voice, which some new-age philosophers refer to as the "observing self," can tell us when we're into a loop with someone, and remind us that it's going nowhere. Even if the other party or parties are unaware of their imprisonment in the loop, we always have the option of individually opting out.
You might say, for example, "Well, I've said everything I have to say," and just fall silent. Or, "I would like to be excused from this conversation." Or, "Could we change the topic? I'm not finding this conversation very fruitful." You might conjure up much more imaginative replies than the examples I've offered.
I suppose our ideas and attitudes about toxic loops reflect our psychic needs related to conflict, doing battle, and winning or losing. I believe that once we let go of the need to "be right," we can recall and redirect the psychic energy we've been allowing others to pull from us. We have more options, more possibilities, and more ways to stay centered and use our energy for our own best purposes.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, credited with writing The Way of Life, reportedly said, "The greatest victor wins without the battle."
Albrecht, Karl. Social Intelligence: the New Science of Success. New York: Wiley, 2005.
Berne, Eric. Games People Play: the Psychology of Human Relationships. New York: Ballentine Books, 1964.
Harris, Thomas. I'm OK, You're OK. New York: Harper, 2004.
Karl Albrecht is a management consultant and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He studies cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. He is the author of many books including Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense, and the Mindex Thinking Style Profile. The Mensa society honored him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence. Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.