When someone’s words or actions seem unreasonable, impolite, or even outrageous, it’s all too easy to write him off as Attila the Impossible. But you are more likely to get through to him if, instead of passing judgment, you ask yourself how he would have to view the situation in order to see his own actions, positions, opinions, etc. as reasonable.
If he behaved in a manner that he himself considered unreasonable, he’d be doing wrong by his own standards. As my readers know, feeling wrong is so stressful that people rarely do it to themselves. So, hard as it may be to believe, he most likely considers his words or actions reasonable. He sees the situation differently than you do in some way.
Perhaps he doesn’t know all the facts that you know, or he knows some that you don’t. Once I had arranged for a neighbor to pick me up after work so that we could go to a meeting together. Shortly before pickup time, I called her cell phone to say that I didn’t want to go to the meeting after all.
My friend replied, “But I’m on the Beltway!” She sounded so exasperated, so angry, I couldn’t understand it. It seemed unreasonable. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I realize that she, in turn, must have thought I was frivolous, inconsiderate, and yes, unreasonable.
But knew in my heart that those words didn’t describe my friend. I kept thinking about her exact words, “But I’m on the Beltway!” The more I considered that statement, it seems strange. The Beltway runs through our neighborhood, and therefore, lies relatively close to her nearby workplace. But I couldn’t picture the Beltway connecting her workplace and home. At 1st I thought I might have been mistaken about exactly where she worked.
On further reflection, it hit me. I had forgotten that she told me she’d be working outside of her office that day, quite far from our neighborhood. No wonder she was exasperated when I decided I was too tired to go to the meeting after she had already driven thirty or forty minutes from downtown toward our suburb.
To make matters worse, the meeting was then still a third part of town. My neighbor could have saved herself a lot of time by heading straight to the meeting, but had made a big detour in order to pick me up. No wonder she was angry! She had facts, specifically a mental map, that I didn’t.
When friction arises from different sets of facts, that’s good news because such conflicts are usually easy to resolve once all the facts have been made known to both parties. Or, in my case, when one of them is reminded of facts she had forgotten.
In other situations, the other person might have rationalized himself into a position in order to avoid feeling wrong, his mind working so quickly that he was unaware of the rationalization process. However he arrived at the belief that his is reasonable, he holds that belief now. You don’t have to agree with him, but if you want to change his mind, you do have to know what’s on his mind at present.
You don’t have to agree with him, but if you want to change his mind, you do have to know what’s on his mind at present. Take a cool off break if you need it, then, ask yourself, “What could make that position reasonable?”
Suppose you and Biff are planning an outdoor festival for your organization. You suggest having different games for different age levels. Biff throws up his hands. “How in the world am I supposed to know what kinds of games all those different people would like?”
You feel dumbfounded. Biff seems to think you’re being unreasonable, when he’s the one off in left field. We’ve both raised children. If we know what kinds games they liked to play at different ages, why should other people’s children be any different? you wonder.
But you step back and ask yourself what would make his reaction reasonable. What kind of situation would leave him at sea over which games to provide for different groups? A situation where personal taste figures in, perhaps, or a situation where age doesn’t reveal much about preference. What kind of situation would produce that kind of dilemma?
One example would be different groups of adults. Wait a minute! We were talking about how some young adults find bingo boring. Maybe Biff thought I meant different games for different age levels of adults.
Now you can ask Biff, “What different age levels are you thinking of?” or “Did you think I meant different age levels of adults?” If it turns out that Biff was thinking of different age levels of adults, the problem is solved. If not, you’re no worse off than you were before. Now you can ask him to elaborate on the problems he envisions. Then, address those problems.
So your resolution for this month is, when someone gets your dander up, seems unreasonable, illogical, selfish, or whatever, before you write him off, ask yourself, “What could possibly make his statement (or action or position) seem reasonable to him?”
If you get a brainstorm, ask him a question to see if you were right. If you can’t think of anything that would make him reasonable, just ask him for clarification, and be sure to keep your own tone and choice of words polite and reasonable. You’ll be surprised what you may learn.
This article is adapted from Bridges to Consensus. You can read more about asking yourself what would make someone reasonable inCchapter 12.