Dealing with Unreasonable People-Part I

by Grace Judson

better-conversations-headerWhether in the office or at home, sometimes we all have to deal with people who seem unreasonable. They may be making extreme demands on your time; they might be upset about a problem they think you should solve for them; they could be resisting taking action on tasks you depend on them to complete; or any of a number of other equally-frustrating things. It’s easy and natural to get annoyed and even angry.

And so you say “Absolutely not!” to their demands on your time, tell them to go solve their problem themselves, and for goodness sake get on the ball and do their job! You’d probably consider yourself perfectly reasonable in any of these responses, given how unreasonable the other person is acting. The problem, of course, is that this shift into confrontation only escalates the situation. After all—though this may be hard to accept—the other person considers their actions to be at least as reasonable as you think yours are.

So what can you do—without becoming a doormat for them to walk on? Start by asking yourself this question:

Why would a reasonable person behave the way they’re behaving?

I get that this is a difficult perspective. When I ask my clients to consider this, their immediate response is, “But this person is NOT REASONABLE!”. I imagine that’s what you’re thinking, too. Nonetheless, pretend they are. And then make up some stories about why they might be acting this way. I’ll give you a hint: it generally involves some form of fear or anxiety.

For instance, the person making extreme demands on your time may be in panic mode over a project they have to complete and don’t have the resources for. Or someone might have suggested to them that you’re the person who should be doing this task—even though that’s not actually the case. The person with the problem they want you to solve might be afraid of appearing stupid because they can’t solve it on their own. Or they might be confused about what the problem actually is. And they too could have been misled by someone who suggested they ask you for help.

And the person who hasn’t completed critical tasks that you’re relying on them to finish could be overwhelmed by other priorities. They might have problems in their personal life—a serious illness or death in the family, for instance—that you don’t know about.

As author, lawyer, and professor Ozan Varol writes, “If you disagree with someone, it’s not because you’re right, and they’re wrong. It’s because they believe something that you don’t believe. They have a different perspective you’re missing.”

Discovering that perspective is the key that opens the door to greater understanding, less stress, and a path toward resolution of the conflict.

Next month, I’ll describe what you can do after you explore this question of “Why would a reasonable person do those things?”. In the meantime, see what happens when you ask yourself the question and consider different answers. I’ll bet you discover some interesting things!


Grace Judson is an expert on communication, conflict transformation, and negotiation. She works with individuals, teams, and leaders to help them have the clean, clear, honest conversations that improve relationships and build careers. She can be reached on her website, www.gracejudson.com, where you can sign up for her newsletter and receive weekly tips on communication, conflict, and connection, including notification of the upcoming Communication Lab module “Managing your Inner Critic: how to stop the rotten-tomato fight in your head.” Or click here to read a series of articles on the inner critic and other forms of negative self-talk.

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