Working with Unreasonable People?

Working with Unreasonable People?

Paula S. Butterfieldby Annalise Jarman

You have probably heard that every family has at least one crazy person, and if you don’t think your family has one, it’s probably you, right? The saying makes me laugh, but it’s kind of true. At the very least, we will all have to work with someone at some point who we feel is being incredibly unreasonable. Luckily, we live in the Information Age, and there is information out there that can help.

Earlier this month I gathered some such information as I attended a conference calledReasoning with Unreasonable People: Focus on Disorders of Emotional Regulation. The event was put on by the Institute for Brain Potential and Paula S. Butterfield, PhDpresented. It was great information, both informative and relevant.

Here are a few main points from the conference:

1. Defining “unreasonable people”

“Unreasonable people” does not include personalities that simply clash with our own, nor does it include everyone who disagrees with you, nor everyone who annoys you. Instead, unreasonable people have some specific characteristics. These characteristics include distorted, negative thinking, an inability to empathize, and incapacity to self-reflect or to learn from experience, an extreme intolerance for negative feedback, a refusal to take responsibility for any unintended consequences of their behavior, and a history of troubled relationships. Doctor Butterfield went on to explain that these people are often blind to the effect that their behavior has on others, and that while they know in their heads that other people have perspectives different from their own, those perspectives are a “magic mystery land” to these people. As a result, they often talk and act as if the way they see things is the only truth out there.

2. Remembering that we cannot control anyone except ourselves

Doctor Butterfield emphasized that the conference was not about changing these people. No one can change who is not willing to do so, and people with the characteristics listed above are usually unwilling to change. One thing we can do, however, is train ourselves to remain calm when we find ourselves in conflict with these people. Ways to remain calm include understanding and taking care of ourselves, meditating, using mindfulness practices regularly as well as in moments of conflict, and mentally distancing ourselves from the situation enough that we don’t take any attacks from the unreasonable person personally.

3. Finding ways to understand the unreasonable person better 

Understanding people helps us to be patient with them and to work with them. Here are some tips on how to keep your mind open to others’ perspectives:

  • Trade judgement for curiosity
  • Judgment is determining whether something (i.e. an idea or an action) is good or bad. Despite what popular culture tells us, judgements are sometimes necessary. However, if you can set aside judgement while talking with people, and instead simply foster the desire to understand what they think and how they see things, that can help your communication with an unreasonable person (and with reasonable people too, really) in a tremendous way.
  • Assume their intentions are good.  As the presenter put it, “We are all heroes in our own stories”. One suggestion she made was to write down the unreasonable person’s story in a way that makes them the hero. The purpose of this exercise is to help you cognitively reframe the situation and help you understand some possible reasons for their actions.
  • Know that unreasonable people are often driven by a basic fear. This might be a fear such as being dominated, being inferior, being abandoned, being ignored, or being imperfect.  These are also the basic fears behind several personality disorders (Antisocial, Narcissism, and  Borderline personality disorders, among others).

4. Learning to keep our conversations functional 

Doctor Butterfield taught us a little process to help keep things functional when conversing with unreasonable people about issues that may lead to conflict. First, set any boundaries that you’ve been needing to set with the person early on in the conversation. Then, listen to their side with Empathy, Attention, and Respect (EAR). If you would like to offer your own input or perspective, ask for permission first and proceed only if permission is granted. If you sincerely change your mind on any boundaries you have set, that is fine, but remember that it is good to hold your ground when it comes to the boundaries and values that are really important to you.

5. Practice applying these concepts

Doctor Butterfield also emphasized that while these concepts may be easy to understand, they are very difficult to apply! They take a lot of practice. She recommended determining what kind of person we would like to be, and then thinking of conflicts with unreasonable people as opportunities to practice becoming that type of person.

The conference was six hours long, so as you might imagine, this is a very, very high-level overview of the information presented. I have skipped over large sections of information, and some of the information I have reorganized in order to simplify and condense it. The content, however, is all from Doctor Butterfield’s conference. If you get the chance to attend one of her conferences, I would recommend it. I thought the information was both interesting and useful. I’m glad I took the opportunity to attend.

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