“It just doesn’t make sense.”
“They’re acting against their own interests.”
“I’m sure they’ll listen to reason.”
“They’re being irrational.”
How often do you hear people use these kinds of phrases? How often do you hear people describe those they disagree with, or don’t quite understand, as being “irrational?” When we call someone irrational, we lose the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of that individual’s values. In essence, we write that person off.
But what does it mean when we call someone irrational?
To start, there is a difference between rational decisions and rational aims. Peterson (2009) wrote, “to be instrumentally rational is to do whatever one has most reason to expect will fulfill one’s aim (pp. 4-5).” So, when we makes decisions that we don’t (or shouldn’t) expect to fulfill our aims, those are irrational decisions. Irrational decisions are bad decisions, and we can objectively verify when a decision is rational or irrational.
For example, if you want pie and hate cake, and order cake … well, you’re not going to be enjoying dessert. Or, consider an organization that wants to increase internal collaboration and teamwork in the sales department, but then decides to only give bonuses and commission based on individual sales numbers (“On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B,” by Steven Kerr, is an excellent example of how reward systems can make irrational decisions). So, sometimes we are aware of when our decisions are irrational (the cake) and sometimes we are unaware (the sales bonuses).
When we call someone irrational, I think we are more often referring to their aims rather than their decisions. However, can someone actually have irrational aims? On this, Peterson (2009) wrote, “it could perhaps be objected that everyone should be free to decide for herself what is important in life. If someone strongly desires to count blades of grass on courthouse lawns, just for the fun of it, that might very well qualify as a rational aim” (pp. 4-5). Because aims are inherently subjective, I believe that aims are inherently rational – at least to the person that holds those aims.
That being said, aims can change and people can hold competing goals. For example, imagine that all you wanted to do yesterday was count the blades of grass on the courthouse lawn, and did just that. Then, today, you find out that because you didn’t show up to your court case you lost your lawsuit. Now, both were important to you, but which one mattered more? If counting blades of grass was more important, then you made a good decision. But if winning your case was more important, then clearly you made, in retrospect, a poor decision. Although these two aims conflict with one another, they are both rational aims. Sometimes, that is what decision-making is about: deciding which of our goals is more important.
An excellent way to observe when someone hasn’t understand another person’s aims is when the conversation goes like this: “let me try explaining that again….” When we do not understand the values behind another person’s aims, and our aims seemingly conflict with theirs, sometimes this is our conclusion: if only the other person understood the facts, they’d agree with us. Instead of trying to explain the facts over again, ask about their understanding of the situation, and what about it matters most to them.
On Emotions and Mental Health
Sometimes people call others “irrational” when they really mean “emotional” or “crazy.”
When we tell someone they are being emotional, we are telling that person that their emotions don’t matter to us. Even worse, we are also telling that person that their emotions shouldn’t matter to them either. And that is the complete opposite of the importance of emotions. Instead of calling someone out for being emotional, address the emotion, ask about it, and attempt to understand the other person. Until a person feels heard, and feels that their emotions have been understood, little progress can be made regarding the facts.
When we call someone “irrational” but really mean “crazy” that is an insult towards both the person being called irrational and those that experience mental health problems. Calling someone crazy attempts to do the same thing as calling someone emotional: it attempts to dehumanize the other person and place them in a category of inferiority. While mental health problems can be a source of both irrational decisions and irrational aims, there are many services and resources available to help, both for those with mental health problems and for those that support them.
Everyone Has Their Reasons
So, as you think about what it means to be rational, be wary of labeling others as irrational – everyone has their reasons. If you need to call someone out on making an irrational decision, then clearly separate the issue from the person. And if you find yourself thinking that someone is being irrational, use that as an opportunity to learn more about them. You might be surprised by what you find out.
But What About When You’re the One Being Called Irrational?
When you avoid labeling others as irrational, it is much easier to have a meaningful conversation. But what about when you’re the one being called irrational (or one of its many synonyms)? Well, that’s an opportunity for you to tap into your skills at bringing others from being competitive to being problem-solving.
A dialogue is problem-solving; a debate is competitive. In a dialogue, people are interested in sharing information, learning more about each other, and coming up with ideas that everyone can agree to. In a debate, one side is trying to defeat the other sides, either by convincing them or by cajoling them, there is little interest in empathy, and there is a goal at stake.
The label “irrational” belongs in the camp of competitive debate. That is why when you avoid using it you can more easily engage in problem-solving. So when others label you as irrational, your best option is to try and change the conversation from a debate to a dialogue.
Here are a couple resources that are great starting points on how to change the tone of a conversation from competitive to problem-solving:
By William Ury (2007)
Although primarily about negotiations, I find the breakthrough strategy to be particularly useful for tackling the problem of when I am talking with a competitive individual. Here are a few points I keep in mind about using the breakthrough strategy:
- Don’t react: Go to the balcony
- Don’t argue: Step to their side
- Don’t reject: Reframe
- Don’t push: Build them a golden bridge
- Don’t escalate: Use power to educate
By Stone, Patton, and Heen (2010)
I like using Difficult Conversations because it keeps my mind on track for how to help turn a difficult conversation into a learning conversation. The three parts of a difficult conversation are the facts conversation, the emotions conversation, and the identity conversation. By turning a difficult conversation into a learning conversation we can help both ourselves and others avoid the common traps that make difficult conversations self-fulfilling prophecies.
For more resources, or if you have some you’d like to recommend, contact me.
You’re in Control
Just as you can control your use of the label “irrational,” you can also control your reaction to when others label you as irrational. You might not be able to control how you feel about it, but you can control your response to it. And that response can help create a meaningful conversation, even when others are actively trying to create a competitive debate.
Adapted from Royal Court: A Game of Conflict Decision-Making, MDR professional project, Marquette University, by D. W. Angel (2015).
Peterson, M. (2009). An introduction to decision theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most (2nd ed.) [Kindle]. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Ury, W. (2007). Getting past no: Negotiating in difficult situations(Revised ed.) [Kindle]. New York: Bantam Books.