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The Question That Brings Hamster Wheel Debates to a Standstill

Some debates, arguments, and bickering go on and on, without leading anywhere (except to more frustration). If you find yourself in this kind of debate, or are trying to stop others caught in one, here’s a single question that’s almost magical in its power to help.

Hamster Wheel Debates are debates and arguments that go ’round and ’round without making much progress, like a hamster running endlessly on his little wheel.

Because they don’t create any forward momentum, Hamster Wheel Debates get frustrating. They sap our energy and rob our good will. And when they become a tired habit, born more of an accustomed reaction than a deliberate attempt to think things through or make a good decision, they can eat away at a relationship.

Hamster Wheel Debates are instantly recognizable because their hallmark is a repetitive trading of opinions and words.

Here’s one I overheard recently while on a plane. The conversation seemed to be between two colleagues discussing a problem their boss didn’t yet know about:

Man: I think you should wait to raise it with him, see what else happens.
Woman: No, I don’t want to wait. If it gets worse, he’ll be mad we didn’t tell him.

Man: Or shoot the messengers.

Woman: Not funny. I think I’ll call him from the airport to give him the heads up. Do you want to be on the call?

Man: No, I don’t want us to call him at all. Were you even listening to me?

Woman: I heard you, I just don’t agree with you. It’s better that he gets an early alert.

Man: No it’s not. We may not even need to alert him at all if it gets sorted before we get back.

Woman: I don’t want to take the chance. Even if he gets angry about it now, it’s better than how much he’ll blow his top later.

Man: Don’t call him.

Woman: You don’t get to decide for me.

Man: Well you’re deciding for me, so why doesn’t my opinion matter? I don’t think you’re really understanding my point.

Woman: I understand your point. I just don’t agree with your point.

And on it went for several more minutes. It finally ended with the woman saying very loudly and very emphatically: “Jack, stop telling me what to do! Back off.”

In the very loud silence that ensued for a few seconds in the rows around them, I thought I could hear something squeaking.

Oh, right, of course. It was the little hamster wheel going around and around.

Stop hamster wheel debates with this question

Hamster Wheel Debates happen most often when:

  • We’re solving different problems from one another. We don’t think we’re solving different problems. We think they’re solving the same problem we are. But when we look closely, we discover — with alarming frequency — that they aren’t.
  • We’re cranky. Maybe we’ve had a long day at work, maybe we’re hangry, or maybe traffic just got the worst of us. When we’re depleted, it’s harder to resist that ol’ hamster wheel.
  • We have ongoing tension with someone. When things are habitually tense, we’re more likely to notice the things we see differently from them. Maybe we even work harder to find the things we can disagree about, just to highlight how annoying they are. We almost welcome the hamster wheel’s seductive squeak squeak.

There’s a simple yet powerful question I’m very fond of for moments like these:

What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?

I use the question in committee meetings and at home. When I use it while mediating, I ask, What is the problem you’re trying to solve here? When I use it while coaching, I ask, What is the problem you want to solve? When you frame it that way, does it make them want to solve that problem too?

Why this question is so powerful

It stops the endless back-and-forth.

I’m a big fan of having a “stopper,” a simple mechanism that interrupts a behavior that’s not very helpful. Of course, lots of other questions could also serve as stoppers. But this question does more:

It helps us see when we’re on entirely different train tracks.

If I had tapped on the shoulders of the two arguing plane passengers, and asked them what problem they were trying to solve, I’m betting the man would have said something like, “Whether to tell our boss about this problem,” and the woman would have said something like, “When to tell our boss about this problem.”

Sure, those problems have some overlap. But even subtly different problems can lead to different solutions, making impasse more likely and buy-in to the solution more elusive.

It prompts us to get clear on the issue we should be trying to resolve.

If we discover we’re on different train tracks, then it’s time to figure out how to get on the same set of tracks together. When something is important, it is worth putting some energy into naming the problem we can and want to solve together. Instead of dividing our energy, figuring out the joint problem merges our energy.

It helps us notice when we’re arguing over something trivial.

Small squabbles and habitual bickering often end up on hamster wheels. They’re just not worth it.

Last weekend my husband and I started to bicker while wrestling with autumn leaves, a tarp, and some gusty wind. When I heard myself say, no! no! not that way, fold it this way! I knew it was time for The Question.

And my answer was as pathetic as I feared it would be: How best to fold the tarp to hold leaves in the wind. While the wind blew more leaves out of the tarp every second we argued for our own respective solutions. Oh good grief.

Thank goodness for the question.

Tammy Lenski

I teach how to talk out problems in ways that lead to great solutions and preserve important relationships.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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