We all have to deal with unreasonable people and, if you're honest with yourself, you may have to admit and deal with the fact that you're an unreasonable person, too. The most important thing, though, is how to handle them and, perhaps if you're lucky, and they aren't too invested in being right, you might be able to make things different over the long haul.
The most important thing to always keep in mind is that when unreasonable people are being unreasonable, they're "un-reason-able." You can't make any progress in conversations with them because logic, reason and a willingness to cooperate aren't possible. At least one person in the conversation will keep on insisting they are right or that some things are permanently wrong, broken or, for all intents and purposes, unforgiveable or unforgettable.
We frequently find ourselves in these conversations because unreasonable people are often just like everybody else a lot of the time. We get into a conversation, and it seems to take a big left turn and you aren't really communicating any more. It can take us a long time to realize that in these moments we are experiencing the illusion of communication. Many things are being said, but in reality, nothing is being heard and nothing is going to change for the better.
Communicating with Unreasonable People
- "Unreasonable people have an aversion to personal wrongness that extends far beyond anything experienced by reasonable people. To them, being wrong presents a threat to survival that equals most physical threats. Unreasonable people put all of their energy into safeguarding rightness – to staying safe – and none into solving conflict problems. They're not interested in solving problems if doing so requires the acknowledgment of wrongness."
- Reasonable people have "reason muscles." Unreasonable people either don't or have very poorly developed ones. (p. 10)
1. The Humility Muscle: Gives us the ability to acknowledge personal wrongness. We do not sacrifice the truth for being right. "Your attempts at reasonableness won't work because they're not interested in reason; they're only interested in winning or in being right." (p. 11)
2. The Awareness Muscle: Enables us to observe areas of actual personal wrongness and weakness. "Unreasonable people are notoriously lacking in self-awareness, not seeing the flaws in themselves that others so clearly see. Therefore, when problems occur, they automatically assume that others caused them." (p. 11) Unreasonable people only see where they are "right."
3. The Responsibility Muscle: We are bothered by our personal wrongness or weakness. "The reasonable person seeks out truth to change for the better. The unreasonable person runs from truth to avoid discomfort." (p. 12)
4. The Empathy Muscle: We are bothered if our personal wrongness or weakness hurts others. We change the way we speak and act accordingly. "The unreasonable person is empathy deficient. His stance is, 'I'm only bothered when your wrongness hurts me.' Consequently, the unreasonable person is often described as 'cruel' or 'insensitive' in his dealings with others…. Reciprocal empathy is a realistic expectation in conflict with reasonable people. With unreasonable people, however, we should anticipate self-serving motivation and behaviors." (p. 12)
5. The Reliability Muscle: Is the ability to correct personal wrongness and weakness. Unreasonable people don't see theirs, so are not bothered by them and see no reason to change.
- "So, here's what we're up against when we have conflict with unreasonable people. They automatically assume we're the ones in the wrong, they fail to see their contributions to the conflict, they claim no responsibility for any part of the problem, they're not bothered by the impact of their words and actions on us, and they change nothing because nothing about them needs changing." (p. 13)
- "When a reasonable person argues with an unreasonable person, they have different objectives. The reasonable person's conflict goal is resolution while the unreasonable person's goal is rightness." (full book)
- "Unable and/or unwilling to tolerate wrongness, the unreasonable person opts for the only acceptable conflict outcome to him or her – rightness – and the method used to achieve that outcome is usually drama." (full book)
- "[D]rama is staged to give the unreasonable person an opportunity to play the role of good guy, the guy who is in the right." (full book)
There are 3 common dramas:
The Master Drama: "The first good-guy role we'll examine is the master. The stance is, 'I'll be in charge because somebody's got to do it.' The master has to be in control." (p. 16, full book version)
The Messiah Drama: "The second good-guy role is messiah. 'I sacrifice to help people' is the stance taken." (p. 18, full book version)
The Martyr Drama: "Webster defines the third role, martyr, as 'great or constant sufferer.' The good-guy role played by the martyr is, 'I've been hurt, and you should feel sorry for me. By the way, it will be your fault if I don't make it.'" (p. 17, full book version)
The Level of Unreasonableness
Unreasonable people can be at 3 different levels (pp. 23-24):
1. Some get better (when consistently handled without drama): "The Level 1 is a jerk who possesses the underlying capability to grow past his jerkhood. When he 'hits bottom,' he experiences a wake-up call, which serves as a catalyst for change." (p. 23)
2. Some get worse: "[T]he Level 2 unreasonable person becomes more determined if he is unable to entice participation. He digs in his heels and stiffens his resolve to win. He can't be wrong and clings to rightness as if his survival depends upon it…. Sadly, conflicts have no growth-producing effects on this person. If he hits bottom, he bounces and appears to learn nothing from the experience." (pp. 23-24)
3. Some get dangerous: "Everything that's true of the Level 2 is true of the Level 3, with an important addition: danger. Physical safety as well as emotional safety is at risk. The prospect of wrongness is so intolerable that he physically injures or even kills his opponent, whom he sees as the enemy. He uses any means necessary…" (p. 24)
- "Unreasonable people are grown-ups who have underdeveloped abilities to handle relationships in mature ways. They lack the reason muscles needed to solve the inevitable problems that occur in all close relationships. Needing an alternative to problem-solving, they resort to drama in order to make relationships "work." Drama participation affects us in three ways: it makes us sick, drives us crazy, or wears us out. In response to drama non-participation, some unreasonable people get better, some get worse, and some get dangerous." (p. 25)
We tend to get sucked into drama for 3 main reasons:
1. Naïve expectations (pp. 26-27)
When we fail make a distinction between reasonable and unreasonable people, we become vulnerable to their exploitation. We need to avoid getting stuck in or trapped by:
- "Give people the benefit of the doubt."
- "Don't think badly of people."
- "Treat people like you want to be treated."
- "Try to find the good in everyone."
2. We think we can reason with the unreasonable (pp. 27-28)
Remember unreasonable people are "un-reason-able," so we need to avoid:
- "Let's sit down together and talk this out." (requires humility)
- "I'll let him know that I see what he's up to." (requires awareness)
- "If I treat him well, he'll treat me well." (requires responsibility)
- "I'll set him straight and tell him I won't take it anymore." (requires empathy)
- "I'll confront him and let him know he's got to get help." (requires reliability)
3. Confusion (pp. 28-29)
Unreasonable people thrive in a cloud of confusion. We can feel confused for one of several reasons:
- There is often a disturbing discrepancy between the public image the unreasonable person portrays and who they actually are in private.
- We may feel confused because unreasonable people stage dramas on some occasions and not on others. And when they're not staging dramas, they can be very pleasant to be around.
- They create a smokescreen by highlighting our flaws and calling us hypocrites for criticizing them.
- They project their negatives onto us. They accuses us of the very things that are true of them.
Staying out of drama requires:
- Avoiding letting your buttons get pushed (pp. 30-31)
- Responding rather than reacting (pp. 32-33)
- Not giving in to pushing the other person's buttons (pp.35-36)
- Setting healthy boundaries (pp. 37-38)
When dealing with unreasonable people we need to accept there will be limits to the kind or quality of the relationship we can have.
1. It will have limited depth. "Our relationships with some unreasonable people may be workable only if the level of relationship is limited. It may be more superficial than we'd prefer, but superficial and civil is better than close and contentious." (p. 40)
2. It will have limited value. "It's not unusual to have relationships with unreasonable people with whom we experience a dilemma. On the one hand, we greatly value their gifts, talents, and abilities. On the other hand, they drive us nuts…. And we may have unreasonable people relationships that are valuable to us in some ways but detrimental in others. When this is the case, we need to re-structure the relationship in order to make use of its limited value." (p. 40)
3. It will have limited growth potential. "One of the outcomes of handling unreasonable people well is that we grow whether they do or not. We become better versions of ourselves while they remain unchanged or become worse versions. The growth is [usually] limited to us…. It brings out our best and we become better versions of ourselves." (p. 41)
When we learn to handle conflict and drama well, we will experience better mood, better "sanity" and more energy. (p. 43-44)
Questions for Journaling
- Who are the 3 hardest people for you to avoid having drama with?
- What makes it hard to avoid drama with them?
- What have you tried to do that doesn’t work to stop or defuse the drama after it starts?
- What do you think you could do this week to try to handle drama better?
Dr. Alan Godwin, How to Solve Your People Problems: Dealing with Your Difficult Relationships (2011)
Mark Goulston, Talking to 'Crazy': How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life (2018)
David Emerald, The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic): 10th Anniversary Edition (2015)
Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran, Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex – A Hands-on, Practical Guide to Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse (2011)
Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine, Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You (2014)
Kathleen Bird, Self-Centered Co-Parenting: Managing the Uncooperative Co-Parent (2017)
Verses for the Week
21Then Peter came to him and asked, "Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?" 22"No, not seven times," Jesus replied, "but seventy times seven!"
If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody.
Hot tempers cause arguments, but patience brings peace.
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. (New Living Translation)
Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts. (Good News Translation)
Prayer for the Week
Help me this week to pay attention to how I think about and respond to conflict. Help me stop my negative trains of thought, ask myself better questions and have empathy for and curiosity about the other people involved. Help me to remember my part, admit my mistakes and limitations. Help me be a better me, not only for me, but for the people who are around me. Help me to connect to and really value those around me. Amen.