How To Respond When Someone Is Irrational

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Arguing with a fool proves there are two. – Doris M. Smith

I was driving along I-95 one day and noticed the driver behind me was flailing his hands in the air, attempting to get me to move over to the right lane. It was quite a display of rude gestures. I rolled my eyes and shook my head as I headed over to the right lane to let him pass.

I noticed that the passenger in my car was trying to catch the other driver’s attention. She had her hands raised, ready to start flailing the same rude gestures at the other driver. I said sternly, “Do NOT do that.” My passenger looked surprised and said, “Why? He’s a crazy person whose being rude to us.” I replied, “And as soon as you start flailing your hands in the air, you too will become a crazy person who is being rude.”

That’s basically the argument against the old adage, “An eye for an eye”. Gandhi said that living by such a principle makes the whole world blind. If we mimic the actions of others that we dislike in an attempt to demonstrate how unreasonable they are, then we become them.

That Gandhi really knew what he was talking about.

Frankly, I felt that my passenger was taking the actions of a stranger far too personally. I chalked up the behavior of the other driver as “crazy” and just got out of his way. I felt no anger about his actions and so I didn’t feel like I needed to respond, either. I also have a fairly knee-jerk reaction to simply remove myself from the presence of people who seem to be irrational.

I also feared that if my passenger followed her impulse to engage in “an eye for an eye” with a crazy person, the situation would only escalate in a negative way. In my experience, people irrational enough to be flailing their arms around in an attempt to bully others into getting out of their way – when there are three other open lanes of traffic in which to drive – probably aren’t the type to care much about how their behavior affects others.

Once you argue with those who are irrational, you have descended into the same level of absurdity at which they operate.

Getting distance from an irrational person on I-95 is easy enough. Just change lanes. It may be harder to disconnect from the absurdity of someone with whom you have much closer contact, like a loved one or a co-worker. However, the same adage is true.

In personal relationships where someone is just being irrational about one thing in particular, it is possible to stay connected to them without staying connected to the absurdity. Disconnecting in a healthy – and loving – way is very different from avoiding the responsibility of working out conflict in a relationship. It is very different from cutting someone off in revenge. The disconnect is from the irrational mood of another, which is being pointed in your direction, not from the whole person.

I used to turn into a mad French chef about one hour before the start of my annual 4th of July party. I would bark at the people around me to work faster, clean harder and… where are the sliced cherry tomatoes?!? Fortunately some understanding friends were able to look past my absurdly irrational state of mind. They didn’t take it personally and refrained from mimicking back my absurdity to make a point.

They disconnected by ignoring my rants while calmly continuing to make the appetizers. The occasional, “Everything looks delicious. This is going to be great!” really helped to calm me down. Once people began to arrive, my panic disappeared and what had me in a state only moments before seemed so absurd – even to me.

Even while freaking out about something, we can ask for help from others. I’ve learned to say, “I’m clearly in need of help here. Do I seem to be acting like a normal person? I don’t think so.” Letting others know that you are aware of your own absurd state of mind and being vulnerable enough to ask for help can prevent others from getting distracted by it.

Disconnecting can be a loving thing to do – for yourself and for others. Getting some space from another by saying, “I really do want to help, so let me know when you are feeling clearer” can diffuse a frustrating situation and prevent it from escalating into an argument that goes nowhere. You can always circle back when irrational people are calm – if they ever are.

Engaging in another person’s absurdity drains your energy and wastes your time. For the sake of your own sanity, rationality, health and peace of mind, it is important to disconnect.