Negative anchors can harm relationships

How 'calibrated loops' can damage family life

We've all been there. One minute you're innocently chatting, planning, or reminiscing with someone you are close to. Then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose and you're in your 'bunker' ducking the incoming angry comments and criticisms and maybe firing back a few of your own.

What's happened is that you have stumbled a particular type of negative anchor - one that, in NLP, is called a calibrated loop.

In a calibrated loop something that one person does sparks off a negative response in the other person and their response, in turn, triggers a negative anchor in the first person. Both are now emotionally reacting to wired-in stimulus-response patterns over which each person has little or no conscious control.

(By the way there are links to more information on NLP and Anchors at the end of this article).

NLP Calibrated loops or anchors in action

For example: let's say John is in his early teens and is chatting with Gary, his father. During the conversation John unintentionally uses a particular voice tone. This voice tonality is an unconscious anchor for Gary.

Gary, the father, doesn't know he has this wired-in response to the tonality but in his reality that voice tone is a sign of 'disrespect'. He doesn't respond rationally or consciously. He has an instant reaction of anger and outrage that John, the son he loves and who he is bringing up to the best of his ability, is being disrespectful!

Gary's mood has suddenly changed. From chatting like a friend he becomes transformed, in John's eyes, into an over-bearing, bossy, and irrational parent. Now John is outraged too. "It's yet another example of the pointlessness of attempting to have a relationship with your father – who simply lulls you into thinking you are mates and then, for no reason at all, pulls rank on you." So John explodes with anger and outrage.

They're into their anchored or calibrated loop and the only way is down.  (Read about how sulking, the silent treatment, gets in the way of relationshios:

What are 'Anchored Loops'

Calibrated loops are part of the anchoring phenomenon in which emotions are instantly and automatically triggered by the behaviour of someone else.

(We explore anchors and non-verbal communication in our NLP training courses in the New Forest and at a recent workshop we explored these negative anchored loops in a little more detail and discussed how anchors can be especially damaging to close relationships. This article is both a summary and a development of the explorations from this part of the workshop.)

In close relationships we tend to react to quite small and subtle non-verbal signals from the other person; especially shifts in voice tonality or minute facial movements. And, because the emotional reaction of the other person is so unexpected and appears to be so irrational, there is a feeling of surprise and even of injustice.

Two-part responses or anchors

Anchors are learned stimulus-response patterns in which something instantly and automatically triggers an emotional response. For example, I might have an anchor where if someone is communicating with me and doesn't maintain eye contact this indicates lack of interest and I get angry.

I don't have to think this through. I notice broken eye contact and instantly feel angry. The trigger or stimulus is breaking eye contact. The response is feeling angry that the other person is not interested in what I am saying.

Part 1 of the two-part calibrated loop is my response to something in the other person's behaviour. Part 2 is their response to my unexplainable mood change. It's unexplainable to them because they have no idea that their behaviour started the process.

In Part 2 the other person notices my mood change which, to them, is quite irrational – why is he suddenly getting irritable or sulking or going quiet?

Now they are reacting to my reaction to them!

And guess what? I'm now going to react to their reaction!

And if this is a common pattern between us it is likely that we will both also feel additionally frustrated and irritable with not knowing why it continually happens – and are almost certain to blame the other person for it!

What makes the process so undermining of relationships is blame. Each party to this two-part process is absolutely convinced that it was the other who caused the bust up - and duly blames them for the difficulty.

Subtle non-verbal signals

In close relationships these negative triggers can so subtle that we don't consciously recognise them. We just suddenly feel bad. We don't consciously register the voice tone, or the unguarded comment, or the facial expression, or the gesture which triggered our mood change. All we know is that we suddenly feel bad – angry, hurt, ignored, disrespected, etc.

It is this responding to subtle cues that makes these loops so damaging. Being very subtle they are not easy to spot. Because of the emotions that they so quickly evoke we just notice the feeling that they trigger and not the subtle cue that triggered this feeling.

And, in our emotional state, we blame the other party for our bad feelings.

Adding 'expectations' makes it worse

If two people are married or have lived together or worked closely together for a number of years they will likely add an additional layer of bad feelings to this process.

Let's say Jack and Jill have lived together for some years. They love each other and have lots in common. They also have allowed a lot of sameness to creep into their relationship. And have developed a whole raft of expectations of how each should be 'treated' by the other.

Now incidents, which in the early days would have been laughed off, get added up on mental check-lists. She has only said 'I love you' twice in the last four days. Or 'He forgot to kiss me today – and it wasn't the first time! He forgot it last Tuesday, too!'

They have begun to lose their sense of perspective. The incidentals are taking over their lives. They're each on guard and it doesn't take much to spark things off.

Let's say Jack asks How did things go at work today? but doesn't use the right (according to Jill's current mood) tone or body language. This triggers a negative response in Jill to which Jack, in turn, responds. Now each person's accumulated list of mini 'wrongs' will be hurled at the other person in an attempt to hit back at them for the anchor they've just activated!

Stuck in a loop

Soon two people who love and respect each other are hurling abuse and insults at each other.

They're in emotional mode. Rational thinking has gone. They're in the Fight stage of the Fight or Flight Response – a relatively hard-wired response which we have inherited from our ancient ancestors. Each is trying to hurt the other as much as they've been hurt. Yet, even in the heat of the argument, each is wishing the situation hadn't begun or that they could stop it or that they were anywhere else other than where they are.

What to do about it?

There isn't a magical trick or technique for dissolving the many anchored loops that will have developed when people have been together for years. It requires awareness and patience – and ideally a team effort.

Dissolving the loops works fastest when each of you agrees to watch out for and then talk about the triggers to which you respond, when both of you are determined to eradicate the loops and, in the early stages, when at least one of you has the clarity to end the interaction the moment a loop gets activated.

Make it a team thing!

You will get best results, and more speedily, if you take a joint approach to this issue. Make it a team project in which you are both determined to neutralise and then eradicate these 'relationship landmines'.

  1. Discuss the issue with your 'significant other' and explain the phenomenon - or ask them to read this newsletter.
  2. Talk about the times when the two of you have been in such situations and, especially, about what it is like for each of you. To be in such a situation with someone you care about is a very unpleasant experience and it is useful be quite frank about how it feels – this will help build your joint determination to get rid of the loops.
  3. Avoid 'righteousness'. This is a big one - the feeling that you are in the right and they are wrong. So, jointly, decide that it is more important to be happy than right. And that, whatever the rights or wrongs, loops will be snuffed out before they gain momentum.
  4. Agree that each of you will let the other know the moment you feel yourself being 'looped'. Decide on both the signal and the action. For example: I'm becoming too emotional about this – can we take a break now to let me work this through?
  5. The moment you notice yourself being 'looped' temporarily leave each other's company, if this is possible. You do need to take a break – to remove yourself from the situation. These anchored responses have high emotional intensity. Trying to repair the situation without first taking a calming break is likely to simply make things worse! Only get together again when you are each calm and clearheaded and determined to hold a win-win inquest to discover what occurred and how it can be avoided in future.

Incidentally, if you cannot physically separate – if it is the middle of the night, for example – then agree to stop communicating so as not to make things worse.

A Win-Win solution?

The win-win attitude with regard to anchored loops means that no blame is attached to what occurred – it was simply an emotional and irrational loop.

Even where there is an element of rationality in what occurred it's usually the daft "I'm right – you're wrong" kind of thing. And what is rational about that? Especially in a close relationship where the only 'right' issue is how can we make it better and better for both of us…


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More about negative anchors or hot buttons:

The Swish Technique is one of the best way of defusing a negative anchor

How negative anchors operate in families and close relationships

Why 'positive thinking' doesn't work with negative anchors

NLP and anchors in the supermarket...

An NLP technique for regaining your sense of perspective

Negative anchors - they are not our fault

Other articles related to NLP Anchors

Negative anchors and self esteem

Poor weather can be a negative anchor for some people

Anchoring and brands - how marketing uses anchors

Insomnia: the part anchoring plays in staying awake instead of being asleep