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How to get an irrational person to listen to reason

6 min read


The first thing you need to do to get an irrational person to behave rationally is to calm yourself down so that you don’t escalate the situation with your own irrational and emotional reaction.

If you’re viewing a person as irrational, it means they’ve already succeeded in getting you upset enough to take something they’re doing or saying too personally when you shouldn’t. When that happens, a part of your middle emotional brain called the amygdala will hijack you away from thinking rationally and responding accordingly. It does so by blocking you from accessing your upper rational brain to evaluate the situation.

Thinking of someone as irrational can mean you’re feeling as if they are intentionally acting in some way just to get you upset — and then you react by becoming upset. Alternatively, if you view them as merely not rational, and don’t take their behavior personally, you will be able to take your emotionality out of the equation.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” To a not-rational person, the world looks like whatever they perceive and then believe it to be, which then in their mind justifies their reaction. If, for instance, they grew up in a highly critical or even abusive home, your merely being direct with them can cause them to think you are attacking them.

Having been defenseless and powerless to protect themselves from the criticism or abuse as a child, it’s not irrational to promise themselves that they won’t put up with it when they’re an adult. But they’re not pausing to see that your directness is not about criticism, it’s about just getting stuff done, especially when time is of the essence.

After you’ve accepted the possibility that they’re not taking it out on you personally, it’s time to utilize the FUDO approach that I talk about in my new book, “Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life,” to help that person become rational. FUDO stands for: Frustrated, Upset, Disappointed, Outcome. Here are the steps to using it.

Step 1: Frustrated. After you have told yourself to not take what the other person is saying or doing personally, and not react emotionally, let them vent or complain or whine or even try to bully you verbally (don’t put up with physical bullying, ever). Then say to them, “Wow, you really sound frustrated. What’s that about?” You use the word “frustrated” because most people will not become defensive about it, whereas if you were to say to them, “Wow, you sound really angry, etc.” many people will think you are criticizing and shaming them and will escalate.

Let them answer your question, and then employ conversation-deepeners when they use an emotionally charged word (usually an adjective or adverb spoken with hyperbole) and respond with, “Say more about [that word].” Let them vent or complain some more, and then go even deeper by inviting them to talk more with, “Really?” By doing this, you’re enabling them to get more off their chest and you won’t be defensive because you’re in charge of the conversation and you have a process (FUDO) that you’re following.

Step 2: Upset. After they’ve expressed much of their frustration, say to them, “And you also seem upset. What’s that about?” Then as in Step 1, employ conversation-deepeners to enable them to get their upset off their chest. Upset is a more palatable place to help them get their anger out where, again, they won’t be defensive about it.

Step 3: Disappointed. Wait until they have calmed down at least 50% after expressing their frustration and upset feeling. Then, pause, and in as empathetic and compassionate a tone of voice as you can use, say to them, “I’m guessing you’re also feeling disappointed either in the situation (or person) you just told me about, or maybe even disappointed in yourself if this is something that seems to happen too often. What might you be disappointed about?”

Again, apply the conversation-deepeners and you will hopefully watch them become much calmer. They may even tear up as the pain underneath all their frustration, upset and disappointment has a chance to break through.

Step 4: Outcome. This is the tipping point in the conversation where you get them to become more rational. Say to them, “Given everything you just told me about and also given the fact that you can’t change the past, what outcome would you like to happen now?” Let them answer, and when they finish, say, “This is too important for me not to fully understand where you’re coming from. Why that outcome?”

Often, just using the word “important” can have a dramatically calming effect, because they are often frustrated and upset because they view the world treating them as if they’re unimportant. Let them explain whatever it is and respond with, “What do you need to do starting now to have the best chance for that outcome to happen, since doing anything to frustrate or upset other people is unlikely to make them want to help you, just like you didn’t want to do anything positive when you were feeling frustrated and upset?” From there, proceed to brainstorm with them on options and likely outcomes from each.

If you’re the one who tends to act irrationally to others, you can use the FUDO approach on yourself. If you do, don’t beat up on yourself for needing to do it. That will just get in the way of you becoming the rational person you always wanted to be.

By the way, you’re not alone if this does apply to you. The good news is that it’s never too late for any of us to grow up. And if we do, the people around us will be so grateful that we finally did it, you and I shouldn’t worry that they’re going to rub our faces in it.

But if they do, we can just FUDO them.

Mark Goulston is founder and co-CEO of the Goulston Group and author of “Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life (Amacom). Contact him at [email protected].

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