Abandon The Toxic Loop

By Joyce Eisenbraun, EAP Trainer, The Village Business Institute

Having just finished a political season in our country where negative comments and conversations abounded on all fronts, it might be appropriate to rethink the purpose and efficiency of harsh rhetoric.

How did so many of our conversations get stuck in what author and consultant Karl Albrecht terms “a toxic loop”? We’ve all seen—and perhaps even participated in—these increasingly destructive conversations or behaviors: one person says something with which we disagree, and instead of a polite exchange of opinions, it becomes a tit-for-tat escalating verbal war.

If asked who the offended party was, both participants in the conflict would probably accept that descriptor, and then loudly defend their right to be offended!

Albrecht makes a startling suggestion to end these types of conflicts: stop arguing. Rather than trying to verbally shove the other combatant into agreement with you, just stop. Although most people would love to “win” an argument, the reality is these toxic conversations usually become an emotional trap for trading insults. Neither side is truly listening, except for an opportunity to zing in a useful jab. Nor is either side remotely interested in changing positions, so why continue the battle?

Toxic loops are highly amusing when played out in cartoons or parody videos, but can be damaging when used in real life, either at work or at home. The best antidote, Albrecht suggests, is to opt out of the loop. Politely.

Rather than engaging in behavior that goes nowhere, do yourself and your blood pressure a favor, decline to enter the battle and, instead, try a different approach: thoughtful reflection.

Sometimes dismissed as the easy way out, reflection has useful and far-reaching effects on both conversations and character. Rather than feeding an obsession to win at all costs, embracing reflection allows us to consider letting go of the “competitive reflex” that leads us into doing battle in the toxic loop.

A photo by Tomohiko Nogi. unsplash.com/photos/u0wXOaDliHI


Reflection requires thought, not reaction.

Reflection encourages consideration of more than one point of view.

Reflection asks questions about “why?” “what evidence?” and “how?”

Reflection allows another person to state their view without competition.

Reflection supports time to process.

How do you know if you are more likely to respond with a competitive reflex than thoughtful reflection? Let’s consider some illustrations of the competitive reflex:


Issue Competitive Reflex Reflection
Friend shares new idea for business reasons it won’t work; examples of past failures encourage to develop; admire concept
Coworker shares child’s accomplishments ask if child got the “top” prize; share your child’s “better” accomplishment cheer the achievement; offer sincere congratulations
Colleague gives different political opinion state facts to refute their claim; hotly argue they are wrong actively listen; thank them for their viewpoint

Toxic loops rarely lead to understanding, cooperation or agreement. So next time the opportunity is offered, try practicing reflection.

If you’re struggling to adapt to a calmer approach, it might be useful to talk to someone, and a Village EAP counselor could offer great insights. Practicing thoughtful reflection may save time and energy, which would otherwise be wasted in a toxic loop. More importantly, responding with reflection may save a relationship, either at work or home.