As a person regarded by others as rational, I sometimes have a hard time dealing with people who act irrationally. During my fifteen years in business I have lost more than a few nights of sleep over the actions and attitudes of others that are objectively irrational. According to Stuart Sutherland, author of Irrationality: Why We Don't Think Straight, irrational behavior manifests itself in different ways such as:
- expressing anger over something that hasn’t happened yet
- exaggerated emotional responses to situations
- maintaining unrealistic expectations
- irresponsible and inappropriate conduct despite knowing better
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has dealt with all of these at various points of doing business.
Through patience, reflection and heeding the advice of more experienced people, I’ve learned how to deal with irrationality in a way that causes minimal damage. Why? Many times you just can’t walk away from the person being irrational or fire them because circumstances don’t allow it.
Start with modest goals and go slowly
It's impossible to know whether someone who behaves irrationally can fundamentally change. But I do know that starting with modest goals works. Don’t try to resolve all of your differences or even one difference as an initial goal. Your first goal should be to get to a point where both parties can communicate respectfully even if it’s only for five minutes at a time. Setting ambitious goals will lead to failure.
Agree on how, not on what
Whatever the point of contention may be that sparks irrational behavior don’t try to resolve it right away. It may take a long time to actually do that. Instead focus on “how” you will communicate: verbally, by email, by video conferencing or whatever method is most agreeable to both. Also agree that you will only communicate when both parties are calm. Finally agree that accusations and blame are unproductive and will not be part of any discussion.
Finding productive ways to work with irrational people isn’t easy. You should expect many setbacks along the way, especially if the other person still doesn’t recognize that their behavior is inappropriate. Don’t be surprised if bouts of irrationality appear when you least expect it.
Keep an eye out for warning signs
Finally, it’s very important to remember that irrational behavior can sneak up on you. Maybe you are having a perfectly normal conversation with your business partner or employee and suddenly they start getting agitated. This is a warning sign that perhaps the conversation could turn into an unproductive argument. It’s better to stop the discussion and set it aside for some time until everyone is calm.
In an ideal world you wouldn’t have to deal with irrational people and their potentially destructive behavior. But if it is part of your reality then you need to manage it as best you can. Always try to keep your calm and remember that if a person is behaving irrationally, it may be because they're going through something painful in their lives and it's manifesting itself in this destructive way.
Photo credit: Thinkstock