The ‘Thought-Stoppers’ That End Conversation

How do you transition out of a conversation about an unresolved issue? Some of us do it more gracefully than others, but chances are you have a few stock phrases you use to signal that you’re ready for the conversation to end. Sometimes these phrases take the form of folk wisdom: “It is what it is.” “Ah well, what can you do?” “God moves in mysterious ways.” “Let’s agree to disagree.” “It’s all good…” You’ve probably heard one or more of these phrases at some point, even if your own stock phrases are different. (If you’re not sure what stock phrases you use, ask a trusted friend – they’ll know!)

Sometimes it’s important or necessary to end a conversation and move on to the next thing, but more often than not, these phrases that we use are ‘thought stoppers’ – semantic stop signs also known as “thought-terminating clichés.” This term was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, where he argued that such phrases aren’t inherently conversation-ending, but become so “when used to intentionally dismiss dissent or justify fallacious logic” by quelling cognitive dissonance. In other words, when a situation feels challenging, uncomfortable, or difficult, thought-terminating clichés give us an easy out – but often only a false one, with short-term relief, by shutting down people’s voices and contributions. As Lifton described it, “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly-reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any idealogical analysis.” Think of it as a short circuit – rather than engaging in difficult conversation that might touch on ongoing systemic issues that could be painful to deal with, these folksy and often well-meaning thought-terminating clichés tell people to stop thinking, to stop engaging – potentially even to just give up. In essence, these can be a way for someone to exert “power over” – to say, effectively, that you are ruling the conversation as finished.

So is the answer to never use these phrases at all? Not necessarily. In some situations, each of these stock phrases can have real value, and contribute to further conversation and inquiry together, but chances are, none of us has an accurate sense of how much we use thought-terminating clichés. This week, let’s work on finding out…

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Notice the thought-terminating clichés used by your colleagues, team members, and others around you. It is usually easier to notice these being used by others first. Take note of them when you see them in emails, or hear them spoken. Notice the impact those phrases have on shutting down conversation.
  2. Start to pay attention to your own thought-terminating clichés. Pay attention to the stock phrases you use. Again, if you don’t know which phrases you use a lot, ask someone you trust – they will let you know! Ask yourself how you are exerting power over others by using these. Take some time to reflect on how else you might be exerting power over them.
  3. Instead of shutting down, try pushing in. Rather than shutting down difficult conversations, try engaging! If you need to plan a different time to continue the conversation, do it. You might be surprised with the results.

Try these this week and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear what you learn about yourself and others as you do.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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