In business, you get to interact with a lot of unique personality types. Some people are characterized by ambition while others are motivated by a higher calling to make a difference in the world. I’ve found that more often than not if you can identify what drives an individual on a personal level, you can find a way to work with them to achieve your goals. However, we’ve all been in situations where this doesn’t hold true. Sometimes, people’s behavior doesn’t seem to be motivated by identifiable, logical thought. Sometimes, people are simply irrational.
Learning to deal with irrational people is a particularly important skill for entrepreneurs and leaders as challenging behavior has a tendency to manifest itself along the entrepreneurial journey. While managing such behavior isn’t easy, it can be done and when it comes to dealing with difficult personalities and irrational behavior, three simple lessons stand out.
First and foremost, it’s important to stop and recognize that everyone, including yourself, can act irrational and crazy at times. The reality is that there are many factors that influence our behavior in tense situations, and more often than not people on the other side of the table are only privy to the most obvious. Personal issues, private stresses, and unseen anxieties influence our behavior, for better or worse. The most important step to successfully manage someone acting irrationally is to start with empathy.
An empathetic response can instantly diffuse a rapidly escalating situation. Begin by recognizing the other person’s feelings as valid, without condoning or commenting on them. The last thing that an irrational person wants to hear is that their beliefs or emotions are wrong. They may be misguided and factually incorrect, but they’re still very real to the person experiencing them. Interactions take a turn for the worse when you push back on an irrational person, causing them to double down on their position and fight back.
It’s easy to use blanket statements and write someone off as “crazy” or “clueless,” but the truth is that irrational behavior ebbs and flows. Some people may be more susceptible to it than others, but ultimately everyone experiences it at different points. The behavior is often brought on by situational or emotional triggers in interactions. Learning to identify and manage these triggers is the second step to successfully dealing with tough situations.
To identify triggers in others, you must first identify the situations that trigger negative responses in your life. Self-awareness is the key to connecting with others and earning their trust. If you know that a team member or partner responds particularly poorly to something like difficulties with investors, make sure that you carefully manage those interactions. This doesn’t mean that you should hide the truth from people; far from it. Instead, just recognize that the situation will trigger an irrational response and ease into it. Help the other person put things in context, and go into the interaction knowing that it’s going to be difficult. Knowing what triggers a negative response helps you to prepare ahead of time, keep your cool, and remain empathetic.
One of the worst mistakes that you can make when dealing with an irrational person is to be combative. Fighting and trying to prove that you’re right in these situations is a losing battle and one that will likely result in a scorched earth outcome. Resist the temptation to fight, even when the other person is clearly in the wrong. Instead, do your best to be vulnerable and connect with the rational person on the inside.
You’re not always going to win, but I’ve learned that you can remain strong and committed to an ideal while still being empathetic, vulnerable and open. The ability to talk someone down from the ledge, so to speak, is a skill that every leader needs to cultivate. It all stems from sincerity and the confident belief in the value of others. Only by appealing to their better nature can you make a meaningful connection with an irrational person and reach your mutual goals.