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How to deal
June 15, 2006 4:46 PM   Subscribe

How should one deal with an irrational co-worker with whom one is having an argument?

I got into an argument today with a co-worker over a project we are working on. I entered the conversation with intentions of listening and comming to consensus, but none of his statements were based in fact. Every time I tried to get a quantitative fact for a claim he was making, he would evade and make another unsupportable statement based on his frustration levels. He was all over the map. He would launch into speeches and discount my opinion without countering it. I became angry, and got stuck engaging him on his terms. I've seen him do this before, and swore I would never let him frame the conversation. This guy is really not a bad guy, he just can't seem to distinguish between a logical argument and an emotional, impulsive argument.

I have a meeting with him and some others on the same subject next week and expect some of the same. I want to force him to be rational and reasonable or to shut up; without resorting to anger or acting like a jerk. Any suggestions on how to make this happen would be welcome.
posted by worstkidever to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just say you need to think about it a little bit more, smile and ignore him. And remember not to get into any future conversations with him.
posted by onepapertiger at 4:53 PM on June 15, 2006


There's two real options in my experience. give them enough rope in a public forum to hang themselves, or accept them as a blowhard and adjust your expectations of them.

Both are effective but the second can make your life easier when interacting with them, if you accept that so and so is an assclown then I've found that their assclown manuevers are easier to cope with.

Or you could form a fight club.
posted by iamabot at 4:59 PM on June 15, 2006


I became angry, and got stuck engaging him on his terms.

Yes it happens in very emotional situation ; don't become confrontational , state clearly that you recognize his emotion for instance " I see you are angry , but I can't help it if I don't understand you" or "I understand this is upsetting you, let's try to see it from my point of view" . Consider you are NOT emotion-free, emotions aren't a disease that need to be suppressed, nor is emotional people sick or stupid.
posted by elpapacito at 5:00 PM on June 15, 2006


Meyers-Briggs to the rescue. You appear to be differently typed than your coworker. In order to be understood by him, and in order to convince him, you need to speak to him in terms that he can understand. Right now, you two appear to have very different communication styles and motivations.

I will not guarantee that you will be able to tackle him by next week's meeting, but a good book to read this weekend is Please Understand Me
posted by seawallrunner at 5:00 PM on June 15, 2006


Ops forget mention...of course I am excluding he is just ACTING emotional, trying to frame you with rethorical stuff a-la O'Reilly, but I didn't get the sense he is doing that to you.
posted by elpapacito at 5:01 PM on June 15, 2006


I feel your pain!

My approach is to let him rant, remaining calm, smiling and nodding and taking notes, until he finishes. Don't butt in or question anything at this point. Check that he's finished. Then summarise what he's said - "From what you've said, I've identified 3 issues that you have raised, A, B and C. Let's start by focussing on A. You said blahblahblah" and give your initial response. Focus on A. If he deviates, let him rant, and at the end, summarise again. Add D and E to the list and go back to A. Focus on A again. Get A to a point where a resolution is reached or you have agreed a way forward. Then move on to B.

Tedious initially, but it gets the job done. Eventually. The key is to stay calm, listen to him, and act as if everything he's raising is a valid point (which chances are, it isn't, but this approach means that you'll get to that point without you explicitly telling him he's wrong). If he's coming out with obviously loony arguments, you can look slightly confused, otherwise, smile and nod.

In some ways, the more people present, the better.

Some people just like to disagree or complain - often as a way of deflecting attention away from their poor performance. Forcing him to address his issues specifically and in detail, but in a controlled way without allowing him to derail the discussion should stop him from going off on irrelevant tangents and turning the argument into a rhetorical one. But the longer it goes on, the more they end up looking like an ass in front of the group, and you come out looking reasonable and sensible and as someone who listens to other people.
posted by bella.bellona at 5:26 PM on June 15, 2006


If he's unclear and emotional, ask him to be clear, then ask him why it's an emotional issue. Go Elizabot on his arse. It's hilarious for onlookers.

"I'm not sure where I see where you're going, Dave. Could you clarify that for me?"

{insert long rant, with you listening (not) and nodding intently)

"Yeah, OK. Look, I'm still not sure I see the point you're tring to make. How would you sum it up?"

{insert concise but emotional bullshit}

"I see. Why do you feel that way, exactly?"

{confused silence, followed by uncertain, inconsistent mumbling}

"I can see you feel strongly about this, Dave, but I think it's best if we discuss this in an objective rather than emotional matter. Wouldn't you agree?"

{well, yeah, but...}

"That's great, Dave. Now let's hear from Carl..."

If you get disagreement, pull out this old chestnut: "Dave, I'm sensing that you're a little argumentative and defensive about this. Why is that?" Give 'em enough rope...
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:46 PM on June 15, 2006


When I got into my first management role many years ago, a very wise man taught me four words that have served me well time and time again: "You may be right."

Don't argue. Just say "you may be right" to this guy, and keep the conversation moving forward. The group will coalesce around positive movement forward.
posted by j-dawg at 5:47 PM on June 15, 2006


Ignore my earlier post, go with the approach in obiwanwasabi's (far more amusing) post. Same tactic (give them rope...), but much more refined! I'll be using it myself tomorrow - thank you!

I second the 'far more amusing for onlookers' comment as well.
posted by bella.bellona at 5:59 PM on June 15, 2006


Here is my battle-proven tactic for these situations.

You need to fuck him over in front of his superiors.

To do this, you need to identify the areas where you disagree AND where you are confident that (a) you can convince your superiors you are right and (b) he is going to flail.

You then stage some kind of meeting where you can go through your current state of play. You move through your entire project, and each time you hit one of your target areas, you say something like "I think X but I know Mr/Ms A disagrees, so maybe they should explain why".

If you can possibly manage it, PREPARE your bosses for what you are doing and identify the areas where they will back you up.

When this works, the results are completely remarkable. I have used this to defeat people several layers above me in the hierarchy. They start trying to explain their point of view, and rather than YOU taking it apart, their bosses do. It is wondeful to behold. These people will never fuck with you again. And all you need to do is smile.

However it relies very deeply on your own relationship with people above you in the tree, and your absolute confidence that you are right.

Yes, it is Machiavellian and involves going behind his back, but you want to win, don't you?
posted by unSane at 6:46 PM on June 15, 2006


Bella, will you come to my work and mediate conversations between my emotional boss and the rest of us? You sound so darn smart. Thanks for your answer-- it helped me!
posted by orangemiles at 7:27 PM on June 15, 2006


First of all, kudos for acknowledging that he's not a bad guy and for noticing his frustration level. On the other hand allowing yourself to lose your cool can be career limiting.

In my experience we all get somewhat irrational when we are threatened or stressed. Can you think of any reason why he may feel this way? Do you also feel that there is a lot at stake?

You're never going to force anyone to change their behaviour. Instead of getting ready for round 2, I suggest you do the following:
1. Apologize for losing it (Without conceding your position).
2. Convince him that you should both avoid getting adversarial in next weeks meeting in front of your colleagues.
3. Try to have your discussion on paper. I find the act of writing really clarifies. Maybe one or both of you will see reason.
4. At your meeting, heap praise on your (hopefully) now ally for helping you sort out the issue.
5. Bask in the reflected praise you extended and enjoy the satisfaction you feel from acting with class.

Trust. Don't just push back
posted by Hash at 10:12 PM on June 15, 2006


Another vote for Myers-Briggs. I did one with my team at work and it was incredibly helpful in showing how different team members approached problems, where their strengths might lie, and what was guaranteed to wind them up. As seawallrunner says above, you need to figure out what the gap between you is in terms of preferred approaches/way of working, then attempt to bridge it.
posted by greycap at 10:26 PM on June 15, 2006


It sounds like your friend is desperate to be respected, and going about it in completely the wrong way. He's defending his self esteem more than anything else. You need to learn how to resolve things with him in a way that allows him to keep his dignity. A little bit of psychology will go a long way here. Also, I really like bella's answer.
posted by teleskiving at 3:05 AM on June 16, 2006


agree with Myers-Briggs, it is very, very helpful, as well as the book "Please Understand Me".

one thing I would like to point out that folks have touched on above (obiwanwasabi and bella both have excellent ways to defuse this tendency btw) is the following:

what your colleague is doing is a classic and very common passive-aggressive technique of misdirection. it could be that he/she simply hates change. he/she could have an entirely valid reason for disagreement but can't clearly articulate it. they could be doing it to distract from their own incompetence as bella pointed out. they may simply hate the colour of your socks.

it doesn't matter, because passive aggression doesn't base itself in any form of logic. when people get passive aggressive, they are not being honest either with themselves or about what the real problem is.

so, to reiterate obiwanwasabi's most excellent post: concede they may have a point, listen to their emotional rant, then ask them, point blank: "Dave, what is the real problem?"

asking any passive aggressive 'what is your REAL problem' will typically stop the argument in its tracks. its a classic psychologist's dodge. most of the time the subject won't want to even ADMIT what their real problem is. most of the time they don't even really know themselves.

good luck. and good on you for recognising that stooping to emotional engagement is not the solution, however tempting that may be.
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:19 AM on June 16, 2006


The classic book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, also has some good advice on keeping yourself in the negotiating frame of mind when the other person wants to shift it to the emotional.
posted by matildaben at 8:16 AM on June 16, 2006


Thanks for all the advice. Especial thanks to bella.belladona and obiwanwasabi for the most immediately practical and amusing approaches. I'm actually looking forward to the meeting now. I'll be checking out those recommended books.
posted by worstkidever at 8:57 AM on June 16, 2006


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