Regardless whether beliefs are irrational, incorrect (because based on false information), or motivationally biased, once beliefs are formed they are the cognitive basis from which behaviour reasonably follows.
Richard M. Perloff
Conflict resolution strategies often presuppose that our opponents are rational and that we can assess a situation and its dynamics on that basis. More often than not that is of course completely true, and despite the modern tendency to vilify those who disagree with us, our opponents are rational thinkers just like us, who just happen to disagree with us on something. But we also all know those situations, whether in our personal or professional lives, where it seems as if that opponent is not thinking and acting rationally, and this makes it difficult and disorienting to read and assess them, and to take decisions appropriate to that conflict. This article will then simply be a listed discussion of a few techniques and considerations to be aware of when we deal with the irrational.
Modern conflict is characterized by a marked unwillingness or inability to allow others to have differing opinions or to express those opinions. Social media fans these flames very successfully. Remind yourself constantly that disagreement is not necessarily irrationality. A simple indicator that something is simply a different opinion (as silly as you may regard that opinion, and as wrong as it may be objectively), is where large groups of people hold that opinion. Irrationality in its true sense is when people act in a way contrary to reason, and if they see the facts upon which to make those decisions from a certain perspective then it may not be as irrational as we believe it to be. Also, for perspective, in their eyes you and your opinions may be the “irrational” one. Ask any participant in the Covid vaccination arguments.
On a more serious note, also remember that true irrationality may be accompanied by mental health challenges in that person, which may or may not be accompanied by actual or potential violent behaviour, so safeguard yourself and others in situations where this could be one of the outcomes. Remember then that these are relatively unique events, and that the normal conflict principles generally do not apply. Conversely, this advice may be inappropriate for normal conflict situations.
SOME RESPONSES AND TECHNIQUES WHEN DEALING WITH THE IRRATIONAL
- One of the first places to start in any conflict with the irrational is to accurately assess the correct cause for that conflict. Looking beyond the obviously visible often brings both the answer to the apparent irrationality, and the solution to the conflict. That seller that refuses to budge on her house price against even the advice of her agent may have already committed to another, more expensive house, the representative that continues to try and sell a specific position may have commission riding on a particular outcome and so on.
- Draw the distinction between objective, fact based arguments and those involving the identity or self-image of that opponent. An apparently irrational position may very well involve that person having internal difficulties with changing their mind, from what they have always seen as “the right thing” to what current evidence and their own thought processes may be telling them. If we misread this scenario we will be expecting them to be reacting to the facts, as we see them, while they are hanging on to important worldviews, even images of themselves and how they are supposed to be reacting (see the “Difficult Conversations” series here on Conflict Conversations).
- Remind yourself of your own boundaries. If there is no compelling reason to enter into this conflict with irrationality, simply don’t. A helpful distinction here is to assess whether this is a temporary irrationality (resulting from a traumatic event etc), or a more permanent one (personality based).
- In life-threatening situations where you do not have better options your best strategy may be to assertively place the irrational person in control over you. This may increase that person’s sense of power, which in turn may lead to a lessened need for him to act out in irrational behaviour. If done correctly and under the appropriate circumstances this may counter-intuitively help you retain a measure of control over people who are out of control. It remains a dangerous technique, only to be used as a last resort.
- In sufficiently highly-charged and irrational situations an apology, whether truly meant or otherwise, may calm things down sufficiently for other, more traditional conflict techniques to have a chance of succeeding. I have personally seen this work in situations involving a hostage stand-off and a suicide threat. Again, a very complex and potentially dangerous technique.
- Irrational behaviour is often the rather rational results of compulsive thought patterns – eg “I lost my job again - I am no good - I might as well end it all”. Try to understand the thought pattern itself, see the cyclical nature of it, and try to find a plausible weakness in it to suggest (not argue) to the irrational person, eg “You lost your job because of the economy, you were retrenched together with 200 other people”. This must not be confused with a toe-to-toe factual argument (which may make matters worse) but as a circuit breaking intervention that breaks the cycle of harmful thoughts in the other person’s mind. Objective facts are of secondary value, you simply want to understand and disrupt the process.
- Irrational behaviour, especially the temporary variety, often requires a calming of the emotional storm that the other person is going through. We try, with best intentions, to do so by a variety of harmful strategies, such as shouting back, arguing facts, telling people to calm down, responding to insults, patronizing the person, or walking away “until you feel better”. A better strategy is to allow the person to vent, to calmly listen (this calm, listening attitude must be conveyed clearly, in a non-judgmental, non-patronizing manner, such as sitting down, moving work away, putting away your phone and so on). Do not rush ahead with solutions and advice, that is often not what irrationality is all about at that stage, the person may not be in a good place to hear and assess your advice, good as it may be. You bring more value at that moment by being there as opposed to “fixing things”. When the venting stops, ask open-ended questions (designed to slowly allow the person, without pressure, to start thinking more calmly again) such as “What is it that you want me to do at this stage?” or “Can I help you at this moment?”
- Tough call, but try not to respond to insults and wild allegations. People say all sorts of thing when they are emotionally unbalanced. You can always ask for clarification later on. Deal with the situation, as impersonally (but empathetically) as you can manage.
- At appropriate moments (for example, after a venting event) get the person to briefly consider (without openly focusing on it) the position from the other’s perspective. This can similarly be a comment (questions can put people on the defensive) such as “I wonder how your supervisor feels with all these deadlines around?”
- Sequence and timing is all important in dealing with conflict, the more so when dealing with the irrational. When dealing with someone who’s bruised ego is causing the irrationality, or who may be a narcissistic personality, flatter first to stabilize the situation, and then non-judgmentally point out the consequences of the irrational behaviour, eg “John, you remain our best sales executive, no one will deny that, but when you fail to attend meetings the younger executives take home the wrong lessons in their own training. Can you help them with that?”
- If the irrational behaviour is directed at you personally (as opposed to being in the wrong place at the wrong time) understand that the person may, with or without justification, believe that such irrational behaviour is the last, only option left. That perception may be neutralised by making it clear, with or without an apology as to your past behaviour, that you are willing to listen and to work towards a better solution.
- If irrational behaviour becomes cyclical and you become convinced that it is manipulative behaviour, call it out in as simple a manner as you can, adding to that the consequences of continued behaviour, without this being a threat at that stage, for example “I have noticed that every time we argue about money you threaten to leave me. That is not helping us to make this better. If you keep that up, we will never get to a better understanding of these arguments.” Naming a tactic without turning it into an accusation often neutralizes it.
- Where appropriate and accurate, start off a difficult conversation with an irrational opponent by acknowledging your own responsibility. This defuses the apparent attack, and focuses attention on the problem and the way forward, eg “I know that the fact that we could not afford a secretary to help you these last three months has been difficult for you, and must have impacted your performance, but there are areas where you seem to have underperformed where I do not see the link between those two facts. I would want us to discuss that.”
- Learn to move with the emotion of the irrational person without confronting or openly judging it. Questions or comments such as “That’s nonsense” or “Why on earth would you say that?” simply make them defensive, retards rational thought, and could increase or prolong the irrational behaviour. Aid the venting process by slowly and imperceptibly getting the person to return to rational thought by gently introducing open-ended questions such as “Where does that lead us?” or “What do you see as reasonable if that is so?” Often, verbalizing their own irrational thought processes brings rationality back to the process, without it ostensibly coming from you as criticism or judgment.
As these few examples show, dealing with the irrational can be difficult work, so it should really only be attempted when that is the best or only option.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information)