Dealing With Unreasonable People-Part III

by Grace Judson

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In parts one and two of this series, I offered ways of shifting your perspective in order to find empathy for the other person’s unreasonableness. (Yes, that was what I was doing. Sneaky, aren’t I?)

Seriously, though, this discovery of empathy for someone else’s experience, even when they’re annoying, is important if we want to make connections, have real conversations, and avoid conflict. (And by “avoid conflict,” I mean the conflict doesn’t arise, not that we’re running away from it.)

This process starts by exploring for yourself what might be going on for the other person (part one). Then you use labelling to learn what’s actually going on (part two). When you do this, you’ll have very different conversations than if you stay rooted behind the barriers of your opinion and your thoughts about how difficult they’re being.

I’m going to give you one more tool, but first I want to address a question that almost everyone has at this point.

Why me?

Why should you be the one to do the emotional labor of understanding and empathizing? Why should you have to make the effort? Especially if they don’t seem to be making any attempt at all to move things forward!

This is a perfectly natural and very reasonable question. I only have one answer for you.

Why not you?

If the relationship matters to you, then you now have the tools you need to work with the challenges their unreasonable behavior brings up. Whether the other person is a coworker, your boss, or a friend or family member, if they matter, you now have options you didn’t have before. And frankly, if they don’t matter enough to do this work, then maybe it’s time to walk away!

That said, I promised you one more tool for your conversational toolkit. When someone is entrenched in being uncooperative—whether they’re arguing with you about something, refusing (overtly or in a passive-aggressive way) to do what you need them to do, or whatever they may be doing—the power of the “no-oriented question” can be amazing.

We think we want someone to agree with us, to say “yes” to what we’re asking. But in fact, that “yes” is hard to get—and it can be a false yes, only intended to get them out of the conversation rather than providing real agreement. From the other person’s perspective, “yes” is a big deal. They want to say “no.” So give them a question they almost have to say “no” to, but where their “no” is actually a “yes” to what you want.

It’s a lot simpler than that sounds.

  • If your coworker consistently drops the ball on something they’re supposed to do or provide for you, ask: “Is it unreasonable of me to expect you to follow through on your commitment?”
  • If your partner or spouse randomly schedules events without consulting you, ask, “Am I crazy to be wondering why you don’t tell me what’s going on?”
  • When you haven’t heard back from someone about an event or project, ask, “Have you given up on doing this?” (This is a good one when someone’s gone email-silent on you. They will almost always email back fairly quickly.)

When you start working with no-oriented questions, they’ll feel awkward and uncomfortable. And you’ll want to be sure you ask with sincerity, not with sarcasm. Practice in low-risk situations first, and notice that you can tune the sharpness of the question to suit the moment—and the person. You probably wouldn’t ask your boss if it’s unreasonable of you to expect the project deadline to stop shifting around, but you might ask, “Am I out of line to be wondering why the schedule keeps changing?”

The tools you’ve learned over these three articles can be mixed, matched, and used in many situations. I hope you’ll find them useful and fun!


If you find this subject matter compelling, consider adding to your CAP credentials with the Organizational Management (OM) specialty certificate. For more information about getting the OM, please visit our website.

Grace Judson is leadership coach who works with individuals, teams, and leaders to help them discover their personal leadership style, build confidence in their leadership skill, and develop their careers. She can be reached on her website, www.gracejudson.com, where you can sign up for her newsletter and receive weekly strategies and tips on leadership and communicaiton. And be sure to check out her program “Managing your Inner Critic: how to stop the rotten-tomato fight in your head” at www.gracejudson.com/managing-your-inner-critic.

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