Dear Lifehacker, How do I deal with someone who's completely irrational? Every time we disagree on a topic, I try to present evidence and information to support my position, and he dismisses them and gets really angry, as if I'm attacking him personally. He has been known to dismiss scientific studies and encyclopedia articles because of typos, or because they were from last year and not this year, and chosen to reject evidence out of hand just because he disagrees. How do I get out of heated arguments with him without just throwing up my hands and letting him think he's right? Thanks, Frustrated Debater
Photo by Probably Okay.
Dear Frustrated Debater,
I think we all know what you're going through. The holidays may be over for many of us, but that doesn't mean you've had your last awkward, irritating discussion with a friend or family member who just won't listen to reason, especially if you know you're the reasonable party. Whether you're arguing science, politics, or the finer points of tipping, if you find the other party in your argument beginning to get irrational and refusing to listen to reason, here's how to defuse the situation before it gets testy and someone says something they'll regret.
Step 1: Make Sure You Know What You're Talking About
First, check yourself. Seriously -- make sure you're not the one being irrational here, and you're not the one using faulty information to prove your point. As with any debate or argument, it's easy for both people to get hot under the collar and pretend that they're the one capable of separating fact from fiction, while the other person is throwing a shrieking fit. Make sure you're not the problem first, and make sure that your positions are well thought out, researched, and backed up, and that you're approaching the discussion calmly. When presented with an opposing view, take a little time to research it and make sure you're not the one reacting poorly.
You note that this tends to happen with this person frequently, so it's possible you're walking into a debate with him knowing that things will turn bad. Whether you're being baited into an argument or your mind is just already set on a fierce debate when you speak up, you need to make sure that your goal is to make your case intelligently and with an informed perspective, not convert him or force him to back down. The former may not end with the other party admitting defeat, but the latter will almost certainly never happen.
Photo by Jan Willem van Wessel.
Step 2: Learn When To Fold, Even If You're Right
When you get into a heated discussion with someone, the first thing you need to think about, probably before you really go to town with your argument, is how far you're willing to let this discussion go. If it continues to escalate and escalate and it's absolutely clear that no minds are about to be changed over the course of the conversation, or if you realise that this has changed from a civil exchange of ideas into a name-calling match or irrational series of accusations and personal attacks, it's time to call the whole thing off and end the conversation. Ideally, when the conversation turns inflammatory, it's time to walk away.
If you're having a enriching, honest, and open discussion of ideas and perspectives, then by all means continue, but the instant the mud starts to fly, even if you're in the right, it's probably best to break if off. No minds are about to be changed and no ideas are about to be exchanged once the discussion gets heated.
The old adage "never wrestle with a pig -- you'll both get dirty, and the pig likes it" holds especially true here. If the person you're talking to has more interest in getting a rise out of you, they'll behave irrationally and dismiss your evidence, studies and any real proof you have to offer just to continue to get a reaction from you. If you know this is where these conversations will go before you even start them, it's best to avoid contentious topics with this person altogether, and save your sanity.
Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Step 3: Disengage Gracefully, And Leave The Door Open
When it does come time to disengage, try to do so in a way that both keeps good spirits intact and leaves the door open to resuming the discussion when the person has calmed down or has decided to stop being irrational. For example, saying things like "Look, we're not about to change each other's minds about this right now, but I wouldn't mind talking it over with you later when we can look over the facts"; or "Well, there's no reason for both of us to be upset over something silly like this, why don't we talk about it later?"; or "Look, I don't want to discuss this anymore. Maybe we can talk about it another time when we've both calmed down" are all good ways to disengage while acknowledging the conversation has gotten to a point where civil conversation isn't really possible.
This is a fine line to walk -- you don't have to leave the door open to future discussion, but since we're operating with the assumption that you're the informed party with accurate information to back up your position, there's no reason not to unless you know an informed discussion with this person just isn't possible. If you think they have something they can teach you, or a different perspective that can inform, reinforce, or even alter your own opinions, it can be valuable to converse calmly with someone who disagrees with you.
That said, you want to disengage in a way that leaves the door open, but says that you honestly want to stop talking about it right now. With the lines above, you do leave yourself open to an irritated person's teasing or accusation that you're the one who's irrational or the one who's upset, but you have to work past that and to the goal: ending the conversation right now and talking about something else. If you have to, go talk to someone else, leave the room to get a drink, do something to both end the conversation and alleviate the inevitable awkward silence that'll ensue afterward. If you've been honest, factual, and intelligent up to this point, there's no reason for you to worry about the atmosphere of the room after you've left, or the opinions of anyone who may have been listening to your discussion.
Step 4: Have A Friend Or Family Member Talk With Them
If the situation is really bad, once you've exited the conversation, it may be worth asking a mutual friend -- or if the irrational party is a family member, another relative -- to talk to them and smooth things over. They may have to play devil's advocate and pretend to agree with them, but the point isn't to convince them that you're right, it's to convince them to simmer down and relax, and to lower the overall tension.
This step isn't essential, but it can go a long way towards maintaining or repairing a relationship with someone you care about if the person who gets irrational around you is someone you actually want to be close with, like an old friend or relative. Not every topic of debate has to be personal, and not every disagreement has to result in the end of a friendship. The sooner you both calm down and patch things up -- even if it's through an intermediary -- the sooner the whole thing will smooth over. Sometimes having a neutral party explain that the two of you should tackle the topic another time when you're both calmer (or there aren't as many people around) and capable of a more rational and reasoned conversation, the better.
Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Step 5: Let Cooler Heads Prevail: Win By Not Losing
As tempting as it may be to just smack the person upside the head and tell them they're an idiot, or shout "look how wrong you are!" until the person gives in and storms away, most contentious arguments in the real world don't work that way. Sadly, no matter what everyone on the internet tells you, a punch in the face or a slap on the head isn't going to change anyone's mind, or prove that you're right.
In the real world, the best way to win when someone gets irrational is to keep your calm and exit the conversation skillfully while leaving the option open to future discussion -- because after all, you're the one with the evidence to back you up and the willingness to discuss it. So leave the other person blowing steam while you keep your cool. When you know for sure you're not getting anywhere, exit the conversation quickly, making clear that you could continue to prove your point, but see that there's no reason to continue. Photo by Albert.
Staying collected, sticking to your guns, and not allowing yourself to dip to the irrational person's level is the best way to deal with someone who won't listen to reason, or rejects your arguments out of hand. Staying cool and knowing when to fold are the important parts though. Your debate may not be as satisfying as you wish, but you'll at least be able to leave the tense situation and calm down knowing you were right, you behaved intelligently, stayed coherent, and left the door open. That's a win in anyone's book. Good luck! And if readers have any other constructive suggestions for how to deal with an irrational person, share your tips for Frustrated Debater in the comments below.
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