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The Conversational Double Bind


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Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Sometimes in conversations we fall into a lose-lose trap, and it is this: if we say nothing, we get ignored, but if we speak up, we get punished. This is the conversational double bind.

A dilemma and perhaps intent about such punishment is that it pushes the person back into being ignored, with the added pain of the punishment. If the person speaks up again, they expect worse punishment, argument or expulsion, so they keep quiet or get angry, which only makes things worse.


In a business meeting some people are talking about increasing marketing spend. A person who has been quietly listening speaks up, asking where this money is going to come from. All they get for asking this very important question is withering stares and a dismissive 'Don't worry, it'll be found'.

A couple are going on on a date. One person is talking a lot and the other person wants to interrupt with their opinion but fears that by doing so they will end up being criticized.


An underlying force in this pattern is status. When we interrupt within a conversation, intended or not, we are playing a status game. Interruption says 'I am important' and can upset the social balance. Roles, power and unconscious bias can play important parts in this, for example where the interrupting person is junior or female.

To break such double binds can take courage and cunning, for example by assertively restating the point , addressing it to a single person, or reframing it. It helps to realize what is going on so you can step back for a moment and be deliberate rather than blindly reactive. Doing this allows you to avoid damaging anger and think longer term, for example by letting the moment pass but tackling people individually at a later time.

A related double bind is in self promotion. If we do not promote ourselves we do not get what we want, yet if we do, we get criticized and refused.

See also



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