Don’t Lose Your Cool. Do This…

Most people have to deal regularly with at least one irrational person—someone who routinely acts unreasonably. Whether that person is a raging boss, suspicious neighbor or an emotionally erratic teen, it’s hard not to get dragged into feeling crazy ourselves.

The usual way we tend to deal with other people’s irrationality is to try to get them to see reason. We use logic to convince them of the wrongness of their points of view. But this strategy just makes things worse. Instead of ­accepting our logic, the other person acts even more irrational, and the situation escalates until both people are acting crazy. This scenario is frustrating, stressful and unproductive.

Trying to argue an irrational person into rationality is pointless because from that person’s point of view, his/her behavior is rational. He is in the grip of thinking patterns with roots in the past. His behavior is a response to a perceived threat, and your appeals to reason come across as scolding, condescending and threatening­, causing him to cling even harder to the behavior that he views as protecting him from that threat.

Also, the chronically irrational person is more comfortable with extreme behavior than the rest of us. This makes it easy for him to escalate an encounter until the other person loses control.

A better way to deal with crazy-making behavior is the counterintuitive way—lean in to it. Instead of trying to talk the other person out of his world view, empathize with him and act as though that view is real—which it is to that person at that moment. This approach allows him to see you as an ally, not a threat. Though effective, this strategy is difficult. It requires you to stay calm and composed. You need to manage the ­irrationality that the other person triggers in you. What to do…

Recognize the pattern. Most chronically irrational people have a preferred way of operating and over time will drive you into wanting to do something irrational that you’ll likely regret. Examples: Bullying…acting ice-cold…making wild accusations…bursting into tears.

When you can identify someone’s habitual brand of irrationality, you are less likely to be blindsided. Instead of reacting automatically, you can be prepared with a calm response.

Practice poise. When confronted with irrationality, repeat to yourself, over and over, This is an opportunity for poise.

Think of poise as a mental muscle that gets stronger the more you use it. To strengthen your capacity for poise, practice every day with less extreme challenges. At the beginning of each day, ask yourself, What are likely to be the most challenging situations I will deal with today? Make a commitment to demonstrate poise in those situations. Keep in mind that poise is worth developing not just because it makes you more effective with irrational people—it earns you respect from people in all areas of your life and ­improves your self-respect as well.

Remember your mentors. A good way to access poise under pressure is to call to mind someone who has always cared about you and believed in you. This inner mentor can be living or dead.

Picture that person saying to you, This is your opportunity for poise. Take advantage of it. You aren’t going to shoot from the hip. You can handle this. 

Practice this daily. Picturing one or more inner mentors is comforting and also inspires gratitude. Gratitude acts like a shock absorber and cushions you against your angry reactions to others.

Assume innocence. Adopt the view that other people are not setting out to make your life miserable—they are simply struggling to deal with their own problems, however clumsily. Imagine that nothing is going right in the ­difficult person’s life, and remind yourself that his behavior is not really about you—it is his way of displacing his own fear and frustration.

Use the “3 strikes and you’re calm” technique. If an encounter escalates and you are about to lose control, this technique will help you regain composure. It is simple enough to remember even under intense stress.

Step 1: Think of the first thing you want to say or do in response to the irrational person—which is usually to defend yourself—and don’t do it. Take a breath and exhale.

Step 2: Think of the second thing you want to say or do—often getting even or giving an ultimatum—and don’t do that either. Take a breath and exhale.

Step 3: Think of the third thing you want to say or do—which probably has to do with finding a solution. At this point, you have shifted from irrational to rational. Take a breath and exhale.

Downshift the discussion. Once you are poised and calm, say in a quiet, ­matter-of-fact voice, “Whoa, hold on for a second—what was that about?”

Instead of “whoa,” you can say “gee” or “gosh.” The key is to use a nonconfrontational tone and to ask with genuine curiosity. You are signaling to the other person that you recognize something is upsetting him and that you are willing to learn more about his world. This usually de-escalates the conversation.

If the other person is still on the attack, remain calm and say, “Whoa, and that too—what was that about?” He may continue to vent, but probably not at you. If you keep demonstrating poise, he will realize that his wild talk isn’t working, and you can guide the discussion in a more positive direction.

Deepen the conversation with the FUD tool. FUD stands for Frustrated, Upset and Disappointed. These words invite the person to calm down by talking about the concerns underneath his seemingly irrational behavior.

Start by saying, “You sound frustrated about something. What’s that about?” Listen with the intent to understand and empathize—not to talk him out of what he is experiencing. After he has talked about his frustration, say, “I can understand that. You also sound upset. What are you upset about?”

Most individuals who have a hostile or agitated tone will own up to feeling frustrated because that seems less accusatory than telling them they’re angry. Then after that, having them talk about what they’re upset about helps them to further get things off their chests.

Finally, say, “You sound disappointed. What are you disappointed with?” The word disappointed has an almost magically calming effect. Even irrational people focus on the what when asked about being disappointed.

Use “mind’s eye” language. After the person has vented, say, “Going forward, in your mind’s eye, what can we do to make this better for you?”

This phrasing often helps to shift the person from mindless venting to a positive focus on the future.

Sometimes a person’s problems are so ingrained that he can’t make the shift. Even then, you can be proud of your own calm response.