Handling irrational people: Four steps for success

Irrational behaviour can be confusing or annoying. But with a bit of know-how you can handle it professionally. Here are some steps mental health professionals use to manage people who aren’t thinking straight. You can use them, too, when dealing with irrational people.

Don’t expect an irrational person to make sense

By definition, irrational behaviour isn’t logical. Irrational people will not listen to explanations or well-meaning advice. Someone who is very upset or confused won’t be capable of rational thought. And certain behaviours can signal that emotional or psychological problems underpin difficult behaviour. If you notice any of these signs, consider the possibility that you’re dealing with someone who can’t be rational right now:

  • An over-the-top emotional response
  • Taking offence very easily
  • Obsessing over minor or seemingly unimportant issues
  • Being very unrealistic
  • Behaving very irresponsibly (for example, spending excessively or refusing to follow rules which are designed to protect them)

Manage your own feelings

While illogical behaviour may be confronting, there is little point allowing it to upset you. Accept that an irrational person doesn’t understand the impact of their behaviour. Your job is to stay calm. Remember that staying calm helps you manage the situation. Aim to minimise risk to yourself and others – including the irrational person. Get ready to find help if you need it. It’s better to seek advice and support early, rather than waiting for a situation to spiral out of control.

Refuse to fight

Once you have recognised that someone’s behaviour is irrational, stop trying to convince them to change. Remember that your advice or suggestions won’t be welcome. And be aware that irrational people will sometimes try to bait you into a conflict situation. Refuse to be drawn into an argument. Listening and trying to see things from their perspective (no matter how strange it seems) is often the best approach to use. Or, if you really can’t deal with the situation, walk away.

Seek help and advice

Dealing with irrational people can leave you feeling drained and rather irrational yourself. Find a support person who can help you handle the situation. If you can’t avoid dealing with a particular person, this may help you remain resilient.

It’s important to recognise that most irrational people have something else going on in their lives. For example, people who are stressed, depressed or coping with mental illness may behave irrationally. Seek professional help and advice from your manager or HR department. And if you ever feel unsafe around an irrational person, leave the room or call for help without delay.

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