Broken record

The most powerful technique I learned in psychotherapy was the ‘broken record‘. You can use it anywhere, but it’s especially helpful for exchanges (they’re not really conversations) that routinely go in directions you Really Don’t Like. A lot of the negative games—and even some of the past-times—described in Games People Play are great candidates for ‘broken record’… but I’m ahead of myself.

The broken record technique has you behave like cracked vinyl on a turntable: you repeat your one statement, without variation, no matter what the other person says.

One of my grandmothers was an inveterate passive-aggressive complainer, and her favorite topic with me was the (purported) failings of my mom. At a certain time in my life, this appealed to me and I would contribute complaints of my own, but it eventually palled…and I also began to see how complaining this way dripped bitterness into a reservoir that never drained. Yuck.

So my first way to resolve this was to not go to visit my grandmother. Reasonable as far as it went, but not great either; I knew how much my grandmother loved me, and I’m solidly behind the Fifth Commandment. My conscience pushed me to visit…now what to do with the complaining —and the anger that I then became complicit in—that I hated?

“I don’t want to talk about that now.”

I used it steadily for three days. At one point, I got so upset that I delivered my line and walked out of the room. That turned out to be the kicker, that I would also walk away. My sister later told me that, after that moment, my grandmother was afraid of me. Since I had no expectation that my eighty-something grandmother was going to adopt a new way of life, I accepted that as the price we both paid for being able to spend time together. Or, said differently, so be it.


All that was a long time ago. My grandmother died in 2003. But I use broken record plenty of other places.

It was my favorite option with preschoolers: monster tantrum, meet immovable object. Also teenagers, for much the same reasons. The great thing about it for both those groups is that you’re not debating. Debate, or discussion, behaviorally implies that you are open to changing your position. And interestingly enough, it implies that to you, the one holding the position, as well as the person trying to debate you. You likely have a vision of yourself as reasonable and thoughtful, someone who when presented with a case considers that case. Your self-vision likely does not include, “Because I said so!” That seems really lame. But you’re not open to changing the time we’re leaving the park, because the bedtime that blesses all life is fixed, and story, bath, dinner, and everything else is back-planned from there. You’ve already thought this through. Besides, changing park-leaving frequently turns into this endless slide of whiny negotiation that never gets you what you want: a calm leave-taking. Broken record is your best option. It avoids “because I said so!” lameness, it maintains calmness—at least on one side!—because you’re delivering the statement the same way every time, and over time it has the potential to deliver calm leave-taking. Because if no kid-behavior alters the adult behavior in that context, there’s no point to testing out new kid-behaviors, or repeating the failed ones. That’s good enough for me!


Perhaps you’re thinking that the technique could be irritating. You’re right, it can, but much less often than you would think—than I did think, when I started using it. Best upside? It leaves few negative side effects. Give it a spin!

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