Circularity of Behavior

In my interaction with another person, I am constantly gathering data, making inferences about his motives and intentions, and formulating prophecies about what will happen next, and more importantly, what will happen next to me. At the same time, the other person is gathering data, guessing what I'm up to, and making prophecies about what I will do to him next. We both make decisions about whether or not we are being threatened or attacked. We try to determine what behaviors will work to help us enhance or protect our senses of self. We choose onions skins we believe will help us feel like the somebodies we have gotta feel like. This process is ongoing and cannot be avoided. The process doesn't depend upon us being aware of it for it to operate.

Dr. Timmons called this process the Circularity of Behavior. All meaningful behavior is circular. Sometimes this circularity is positive. Sometimes it is negative. Rarely is it neutral.

Let's first discuss negative circularity by way of a personal example I experienced. A former client of mine called me when he took a job with a new company. He was anxious to bring zig zags and onion skins information to his new employer and employees. When we met for lunch and talked about how we could work together again, he told me he would introduce me by way of a letter to his district manager. This manager would have to approve of any work we did together. He gave me the name and phone number of the manager's office and suggested I call him after he had had time to receive the letter. At the end of the lunch, I was very excited about the prospects and could hardly wait to give his manager a call.

A few days passed and I figured it was time to give the manager a ring. I phoned the office and a female voice answered. She transferred me to the manager's office where another female voice answered the phone. This voice didn't sound as friendly as the other. It was abrupt and harsh in my ear. Our brief conversation went something like this.

"Hi, my name is Tom Sylvest. Mr. Hennessey asked that I call Mr. Jones and if Mr. Jones has a few minutes I would like to speak to him."

"Why?" came the clipped response.

"Mr. Hennessey and I worked together two years ago and he thought that Mr. Jones would be interested in the work I do."

"So how did Mr. Hennessey arrive at this conclusion?" she asked with all the gentleness of an inquisition and tenderness of a mad dog.

I began to get the impression this woman was bad news, but I tried to answer her as accurately as I could. I tried to give her some data that would help us reach some understanding by saying, "I really don't know, but we felt that we worked well together, produced some significant results with his sales group, and I would guess Mr. Hennessey thought we could apply a similar process to his new sales team." She was silent for a few seconds and I thought she might not be there. So I asked, "Hello?"

Then the voice I was learning to hate filled the phone with, "Oh! You're finished? I thought you were going to give me more of a reason to let you talk to Mr. Jones. Anyway, he's busy right now. Give me your name again and I'll give him the message."

"M'am, are you a professional call screener, because if you are not, you ought to be. I'm not sure I want to talk to Mr. Jones if I have to talk to you every time." This was my feeble attempt at sarcastic humor.

"Sir, your rudeness is only exceeded by your arrogance to think that you can just call here and talk to anyone you want to without a good reason."

"I'm sorry, but I gave you as complete an explanation as I could. Mr. Hennessey wrote to Mr. Jones and I believe he is expecting my this phone call." I backed off the sarcasm and went straight the rational approach.

"Mr. Hennessey doesn't run this office. I do. Just give me your name and number and I'll give to Mr. Jones and I'm sure he'll call you if he wants to."

There was no winning in this situation. "My name is Tom Sylvest and my phone number is 444-4444 and I should be at this number the rest of this afternoon and all day tomorrow," I told her, giving up on the idea I would ever like this battle ax.


I never heard from Mr. Jones and I wasn't about to put myself through that kind of grilling again until I repaired my zig zag and figured out some way to defend myself. What was going on here?

All the principles of behavior and especially the Circularity of Behavior came together in this little episode in my life. Simply, I got zapped by the woman and zapped her back to defend my sense of self. She made me feel like a hockey puck and I had to retaliate just to keep from feeling like less than somebody. If I had buckled under to her attack, I could have seen myself and been seen by others as less than worthy. Of course my early messages whispered to me through the years that I would just die if I wasn't worthy. I had to counterattack, and did. However, I didn't accomplish my goal, namely keeping her from attacking me again. She turned right around and zapped me again. I knew I had to find an onion skin, no matter how childlike, to defend myself further. If there had not been a natural ending to our conversation, she and I could have zapped and counter-zapped until we were beaten to our tantrum onion skins.

This is negative circularity in all of its glory. When a person receives or perceives a negative communication from another and communicates in a negative way in return, the second person is said to "mirror" back the first's behavior. In my example, when I received the negative words and music from the woman, I mirrored her behavior by responding negatively.

The reason this happens is simple. Negative circularity most often arises because we are operating on inferences based on limited data about each other. Each person then tends to fall back on his or her stereotyped notions of the other and makes negative inferences. In effect, we fill in what we don't know with generalized information about what those kind of people are.

In my case, I filled in the blanks with my stereotypes about secretaries, particularly call screeners, and even accused her of being one. My data certainly wasn't complete. I didn't even know her name, what she did in the office, her relationship to Mr. Jones, if she knew of Mr. Hennessey's letter, and I was assuming (inferring) who she was, this woman equals call screener. In her case, I can only guess she filled in the blanks with her own stereotype about phone- callers- who-want-to-talk-to-the-big-guy. Her data was obviously deficient, because she didn't know my name, what I was up to, what my purpose was, and what I planned to do to her and him and everyone else on the face of the earth.

It seems to be a common human response that when in doubt, fill in the blanks and protect yourself. Furthermore, when doubt exists, we fill in the blanks with negative inferences. If we filled in the blanks with positive inferences, we run the risk of being wrong and could get caught with our defenses down.

But if we infer negatively, we can always be ready for the negative. If the positive occurs, we can always back up and apologize and ask for forgiveness and explain ourselves and rationalize our behaviors and resort to the intellectual reasons for acting this way or that. And if people don't understand our reasons for being defensive, then we can blame them for not trying to understand us and walk away pouting, feeling we were right anyway. The ultimate reason we use the negative inference approach is because it works. It helps us defend our zig zag from real and perceived threats and attacks.

You may have noticed in this discussion that negative circularity can escalate with zaps to each other, gain momentum, and accelerate quickly. We attack and counterattack. We lay zap upon zap. We make negative inference upon negative inference. We perceive selectively and fulfill our prohecies regarding each other. We run from one stereotype to more destructive stereotypes, etc. etc. etc.

This process of escalation and acceleration Dr. Timmons named a Malevolent Snowball. Malevolent means someone wishes you ill or harm. This is a wonderful image of what is going on in some circularity situations. I picture Tom and Jerry, Sylvester and Tweetie, or Bugs and Elmer on top of a snow covered hill in one of those cartoon fights when you see a swirl of ink with arms, feet, and stars flying out of it. They drop into a snowdrift, head down the slope, and the snowball grows larger and larger until it finally crashes into a rock. After I experienced the phone conversation with the woman and had time to think about how ineffective I was, I kind of giggled at the image of rolling down a hill with her wrapped around my neck and snow flying every which direction. It can be a funny picture, but the results are far from humorous.

Most of the time we don't live in malevolent snowballs. But when we do, we eat up precious time and energy defending and restoring ourselves to the somebodies we have got to feel like. We sleep poorly. We worry about running across our fellow snowball travelers. We think about what we should have done. We feel guilty. We feel anxiety. We avoid others. We become a mess.

I really believe that most of the time for most of us, we live in benevolent snowballs. Living in these snowballs helps us realize the somebodies we must feel like together. You and I reach out to each other as scared as we are and appreciate one another's personhood. We openly communicate our needs in an environment of trust, respect, and dignity. We choose coping onion skins which bring others toward us to help us meet our personal and collective needs. We reject the defense mechanisms that could push us apart. We try to understand each other by exchanging our data and inferences regarding what we are up to. We listen to both the words and the music of each other's messages to be sure we get the full meaning. We may offend each other or zap each other, but the safe environment we have built, the trust we have cultivated, the openness we have constructed, and the understandings we have nutured can withstand all comers.

This is a benevolent snowball. This is where we want to live if we have any sense at all. This is what we can have even if we know nothing of the behavioral principles we have shared.

Reversing Negative Circularity

Even though we appreciate another person's uniqueness and do our best not to threaten or violate him, there will be times we will find ourselves in malevolent snowballs. Negative circularity is rarely productive. One person lashes out and zaps somebody's zig zag and the other person zaps back, trying to make the first feel like less than somebody. Zaps and counter-zaps eat up a lot of energy that could be used towards more positive results.

Dr. Timmons offers us a way to stop a malevolent snowball and turn the negative circularity into positive circularity. The steps listed below are all based on the basic principles you have learned. After we look at the steps, we'll present an example to demonstrate how these steps can work.

1. Recognize Your Inferences- In a malevolent snowball, we are always inferring what another person's motives are. We have to infer in order to make sense out of what is happening to us and to predict what strategies and tactics may work to keep ourselves from being terribly violated. However, inferences can be a problem in a malevolent snowball. First, we may not have all the data we need to make accurate and proper inferences or we may be perceiving the data selectively. Secondly, the data we have will be tinted by our perceptual filters before they get to our inference level. On the inference level, we could be applying prejudice, stereotypes, and the Lawyer's Ploy. Fourth, we may treat our inferences as if they are facts. These are the common pitfalls.

If we back up a little bit, check out our inferences, challenge our perceptual filters, and distinguish between what is fact and what is inference, we can begin to come up with other alternative explanations for the possible negative behaviors we witness that seem to be directed towards us. The question to ask oneself is "Do I know this as a fact or is this just my best guess?"

2. Act or React- Once we have made an inference about what someone is doing (to us), we always have some choices to make about our own behaviors. You and I are the only ones who are responsible for our behaviors. No one else can make us do anything. In a malevolent snowball, our choices are 1) to act on our own motives and intentions, or 2) to react to the other person's behavior and possible motives that we have inferred.

3. Mirror or Sponge- After we have made our decision to act on our own motives or react to what we perceive to be the other's motives, we will decide to either 1) "sponge"or absorb the perceived attack or 2) "mirror" or reflect the perceived attack.

Sponging does not mean that we have to lay down like a "door mat" to be walked on. It does mean finding the strength to accept the possibility that indeed we may have done or said something that triggered the negative situation. We may not have meant to, but sometimes it just happens.

As for mirroring someone's behavior, some may say to take the high road in all situations and sponge up an attack. This approach is not always effective. There are times when mirroring helps the person "attacking" see the kind of behavior he or she is exhibiting. This can be a form of very effective feedback to the other person.

4. "Let Him Know He Got You"- Surface the fact that you have been affected by the other's behavior. This is an absolutely essential step in turning a negative snowball into a positive one. If we feel hurt, angry, confused, or surprised, the other person needs to know it. Without that information, he or she must continue to protect and enhance his or her "sense of self", "worthiness", and "feeling of somebodiness" with behaviors that have worked in the past. He or she will have to keep shooting until he/she feels he/she has scored. So, we must let him or her know he or she did.

5. Recycle- Often a negative snowball does not get turned around on our first attempt. We may have to try again and run through the preceding steps once, twice, or til the cows come home

6. "K.O.K.O."- "Keep on keeping on" by continuing to act, sponge, and "letting him know he got you" and recycling as much as we feel we need to. We have to decide how much emotional investment we want to put into this process for any given relationship. We may not want to take too much time with the guy who cut in front of us in traffic. However, we may want to spend years resolving a negative snowball with our parents, friend, spouse, or child. Again, the responsibility, control, and decisions are ours and only ours.

Dr. Timmons used examples like the following to demonstrate how to stop a malevolent snowball and turn it into a benevolent snowball.

I am in a room and a woman walks in. I turn towards her, grimace a little bit, furrow my brow and immediately turn back, tilt my head forward and resume my work.

She walks over and stands behind me and says in a rough manner, "What the hell are you doing?"

I turn and say sharply, "Nothing."

She says in a sarcastically hopeful voice, "You aren't the guy I am supposed to work with this week, are you?"

I retort equally sarcastically, "I certainly hope not!"

She stands there for a few moments and storms out of the room.

With lightning speed, the woman and I have stepped into a malevolent snowball. Unless one of us does something, we will be headed for a stormy relationship. In this brief interaction, all the principles of behavior are operating. Lets look at the scenario in terms of the principles before we turn the circularity around.

First, we obviously did nothing to help one another feel like somebody. We may have even gone so far as to help one another feel like less than somebody.

Secondy, she zapped my zig zag and I zapped hers. Since our number one job is the enhancement and protection of our sense of self, our natural responses to these perceived attacks is to protect our sense of self. Therefore, the zaps.

Next, neither of us apparently feels worthy and some learned needs are not being met in the interaction. I don't know which ones, because I don't know what her zig zag is. As for myself, I am only a little aware of what mine might be in this situation if I think about it at all.

We also used some onions skins, sarcasm for one. For the most part, our behaviors were defensive in nature. Do you think either of us relied on coping behaviors to get our needs met?

DIP was at work too. I gathered data. She gathered data. I made inferences. She made inferences. I made prophecies. And she made prophecies. The data I received was:

woman walked into room and then left the room;

she said the words, "What the hell are you doing?" and "You aren't the guy I am supposed to work with this week, are you?";

the music of her words and manner that I inferred, "sarcastic vocal inflections, rough tone of voice, uncooperative nature, etc."

The inference and prophecy I made was something like: " This woman equals pain in the neck and what do pains in the neck do? They give you neck pains."

I can only guess what the data were that she picked up and I'll never know what her inferences were about me. I need to know this though. So I infer a little more and a little more, until I have the answers to my questions about what she is up to. The bottom bottom line is this woman is bad news for me.

As you can see, the principles and processes give us a way to make some sense out of this and other situations. Are these explanations right? To me, it doesn't really matter if the explanations are right or wrong. I have to make some sense of what is happening and the principles and processes give me a more organized way to think about the dynamics of interactions. They also help me consider possible alternatives for a person's motives and offer me a wider range of behavioral options as compared to relying on my zig zag to select my actions. All of this helps me feel less confused and lost and more hopeful and competent.

Back to the example, I want to turn this snowball around:

I am still in the room a few minutes later when the woman returns. And I decide to take some actions to turn our malevolent snowball around.

First, I realize I made some inferences about this woman. I inferred that her purpose, motive, or intention was to interrupt what I was doing to get her own needs met without regard for my needs. This isn't a fact. It is just as likely that she came into the room unaware of what I was doing and how urgent I thought it was to do. Perhaps she means well. Perhaps she is a caring person who could meet my needs if she knew what they were.

Based on these possible inferences, I next decide I will act on my own motives. I want our relationship to be effective. If we must work together, I would like our time together to be pleasant, not filled with acrimony. It simply takes too much energy to get a job done and protect my self at the same time.

I stop what I am doing, turn towards her and say, "I don't feel as if I got off to a very good start with you."

She frowns and says, "You're damn right you didn't?"

This seems like a zap to me, but I decide it is probably best to sponge this apparent attack. I shrug and say, "You're right. I wasn't very friendly and must have appeared to ignore you. I'd like to try again."

She shrugs her shoulders as if she doesn't care.

"I was working on this report here," I say, nodding to the desk, trying to give her more data from which to make a more accurate inference. "I was supposed to have it finished this morning. I got to work late, because I went to a party last night, had a bit too much fun, and couldn't get moving today. When you walked in, I was just about finished editing the report and felt a little rushed. On top of that, my head is about to burst."

"Sounds like a hell of an excuse to me. You didn't have to treat me as if you wanted nothing to do with me. You were rude."

"You're right. I guess I really screwed up." I need to let her know she scored. I don't think of myself as a rude person and it hurts to be called one. If she intended to hurt me, she did. To keep her from hurting me more, I need to let her know she hurt me. She probably won't try again, if she knows she has accomplished her goal.

"Well, are you just about finished with that report?"

"Yea. Just about. Maybe you could take a look at it for me and offer your suggestions. Would you?"

"Sure. First, let me introduce myself..."

Negative snowballs don't get turned around the first time everytime. Sometimes we must work long and hard at it. Often we need to recycle thorugh the six steps and keep on keeping on as long as we are able. Try this approach the next time you find yourself in an interaction which is somewhat negative. You may be surprised by the results.

Next Page: How We Can Operate More Effectively-Part 2 Johari Window