One of the secret super sleuth skills I’ve developed in my time doing this work is the ability to sniff out how close someone is to getting unstuck by listening to their conversation style.
It’s not always about the content of the questions asked: the way someone asks questions (and what they do when they hear an answer) is a massive insight into the thought processes keeping them where they are.
There’s one thought process in particular that is almost an ironclad guarantee of long term stuckness. I call this the Multiple Barrier Loop:
Here’s an example of the Multiple Barrier Loop in action:
Person 1: “Gah! I’m so stuck! Here’s the big reason I’m stuck, there’s no way around it, can you suggest anything”
Person 2: “Sure, here’s a solution to that barrier”
Person 1: *butting in before they finish* “yes but there’s this other reason too”
Person 2: “ok, let’s talk about solutions to that barrier”
Person 1: *butting in before they finish* “you don’t understand, there’s this OTHER reason as well!”
Repeat this conversation on a loop until one person gives up or dies.
The issue here is not that Person 1 has multiple barriers in their mind. The issue is that the barriers are mooshing together, competing for attention all at the same time.
So when they hear a sensible idea for how to approach the first barrier? They aren’t really listening. They are running a script through their mind that goes something along the lines of: “well what they are saying is never going to work for me, because my situation is more complicated”.
Unless someone comes up with an answer that touches every single issue right there and then, the first person is essentially checked out of the conversation.
They can’t hear the answers when they are perpetually scanning for a “yes but”. So they never get answers, just more potential problems piled up.
And they get further buried in their multiple barrier loop as time goes by.
There are two ways these conversations usually end:
Chronically Stuck Mode: “I guess I’ll just have to think about it a little more” (read: “I’m perpetually stuck… I don’t think there really is an answer for me”)
Honesty Mode: “Actually, if I’m being honest I think it’s just fear”.
And… whoosh. There’s the voice of reason, right there.
Don’t get me wrong, when someone is in the Multiple Barrier loop they are often asking sensible questions. On the surface it may seem that if you just answer their questions one at a time they will be fine. But that’s the difference between a few troubleshooting needs vs being caught in the loop.
The questions they are asking are only part of the picture. Uncertainty, fear, and feeling out of control with it all are much more powerful than a few practical points.
Yes, they do want practical questions answered, but until they are in a state to actually take in some darn answers and do something with them, it’s going to be a frustrating conversation for both of you.
“I think I might be in the Multiple Barrier Loop! How can I tell?”
We’ve all been there (I definitely have!). Here’s how I check if I’m in the middle of it:
👉 You can tell if you are in multiple barrier loop if you kind of ‘check out’ of the conversation when someone starts to answer your question. If you get vague about what you might do with any answer… and can’t wait to jump to the ‘yes, but…’ you were thinking about the whole time.
👉 You can also tell if a more advanced version of multiple barrier loop is in play if you feel ‘uniquely’ stuck and spend a lot of time explaining that most solutions can’t possibly touch what’s going on for you.
👉 A big clue that you may be in this advanced mode is that even when you’re ostensibly asking for help, you feel misunderstood / a tad pissed if the other person doesn’t agree that your situation is pretty impossible.
Again I can say this because I’ve been there (and we have worked with plenty of people who have too!) so if that provoked an ‘ohhh’ moment, you’re not alone.
It’s a part of the process that hits even the smartest people (in fact I have a theory that ‘thinking’ types get caught up the most in this… which explains why you might be great at finding answers for others but not yourself!).
What matters most is what you do when you realise this might be, in part, what’s going on.
What can you do about it? (Some ideas).
1) Get honest about what’s going on.
Simple, but crucial. Getting clear about what is really owning the space in your head lets you voice that and deal with that (rather than going around in a loop of frustrated questioning of details that never quite seem like the full picture).
2) Break the loop (aka engage free-range thinking).
The Multiple Barrier Loop thrives on messy and panicked thinking. So deal with that in advance by separating out your issues and committing to dealing with each as they come.
One way to do this is to write down the big questions you think are in your way at the moment. Such as “I don’t know how to do X”, or “how can I do Y”.
When you have done that, go back to the top of your list and go down the page, writing exactly why you need each question answered in order to move forward right away.
This is important: you need to be clear why an answer is a) needed NOW (rather than in a years’ time) and b) whether knowing this will honestly make a difference in moving forward now.
You may find a few questions drop off at this stage (don’t worry, you can save them for later!).
3) Get specific
Now, you have something closer to the real thing. Next, for the questions you have decided to keep, edit them to get specific. For example “how can I do this without going broke?” might change to “what do I need in place to do [your idea] and make [amount of money] per month within [timeframe]?” That is a question you can start to get answers to.
The aim here is to get down to the heart of things in a tangible way, so you can move forward.
4) Finally, get practical.
You might realize at this point that your (now specific) question isn’t one that you have an answer for.
Now is the time to go and get input from people who do know how to deal with these things – but this time you can do it without the multiple-barrier-loop stopping you from getting the most from what comes up.
Over to you
However you approach it, the Multiple Barrier Loop can’t survive radical honesty (with yourself) combined with clear thinking (so the issues don’t smoosh together every time!).
I’m not saying it’s easy or will change overnight… but having this in your back pocket is a far better way to handle the ‘yes but’ spiral as it starts to strike.