Ask LH: How Do I Get Out Of An Argument With An Irrational Person?

Ask LH: How Do I Get Out Of An Argument With An Irrational Person?

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.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I deal with someone at work who i consider irrational. They are in a senior management position and it is not uncommon for them to provide incorrect information, even when queried or provided with the correct information (a general consensus). They use assertiveness to dominate conversations.

    This article seems to focus on hostile conflict, but what do you do when the person just won’t listen, despite being presented with cold hard fact? As a trivial example, you might say “that needs to happen on Tuesday – because key person X is away after Tuesday”. The manager then says “no, it’s Wednesday – everyone turn up on Wednesday’. Then everyone turns up on Wednesday, you miss the deadline and then crisis mode kicks in … and guess who saves the day? The manager that got the date wrong in the first place.

    Most people are afraid to correct this person when they are wrong. I suspect this is because ownership has been stripped away through assertive micro-management.

    Upper management see this manager as the saviour because they resolve crises constantly.

    I suspect this person sees themselves as the saviour because they deem everyone else incompetent. This fuels the micro-management and assertive behaviour even more, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I have come to one conclusion. It’s time to GTFO.

    PS If you are a senior manager, and you don’t trust those that work for you, then you should deem yourself a failure.

    • I had a manager just like this too. Never listening to reason and always causing more and more work for the team
      So I took your advice before you gave it I GTFO.

      Good move too since now I can work slowly at fixing the situation from above.

    • If i were in the tuesday/wednesday situation, i would get the manager to send it as an email to the team and cc his boss as well, if he refuses you’ve proven he was lying in order to make himself look like the savior when the shit hits the fan, if he does it it proves he is incompetent.

      And i would cut the manager out of the loop, and do what has to be done without him.

      Also if the manager has to be the savior regularly, it means something is wrong and he isn’t doing his job, managers are meant to manage things so that they don’t need saving at the last minute.

      Failing any of that, or possibly in addition to it, before GTFO id go above his head.

  • There’s no point even talking to people like that, if you know what’s going to happen, don’t even bother. If they start the conversation and you know they are wrong, the only way to get anywhere is to ‘face hand’ and say “I’m not getting into this with you!” Blokes that think they have the advantage because they are bigger are the worst, so unless you carry ‘Google around with you, just walk away!

  • My ideas get shot down every day at work, and I have more work experience
    than anyone in that place apart from the managers lol. So even when not in a work situation, just adopt a “I don’t care, it’s your problem then if it all goes south” attitude :). At least then you have a potential ‘I told you so’ moment to look forward to 🙂

  • LOL… my fiancee and I are exactly like this. I don’t like backing down because I don’t want to give the impression that I just agree with what she is saying and letting her think she is right, even though most of the time she is wrong 🙂

  • This crisis creation behaviour is common among the incompetent managers who both micro manage their staff but want to look like indispensible heroes to their own boss.

    We often forget we can manage upwards in the “nicest possble way”. It is quite easy to micro-manage them back, however they often do not have enough nous to see it coming.

    To enact this, I would myself email out the agreed action plan with one extra detail being to subtly include the initiator in the task (aka the boss). Otherwise the boss will only put his spin on it.

    So if the boss is John Smith:

    Task – JS requires meeting again by all to review action on [date]
    Action – All
    Resp – JS
    By Date – [date]

    Initiator & ownership is all documented clear and simple.

    If challenged I would just say I am doing it so we can prevent the crisis that you observe often follows – which the boss cannot disagree with. And if you are really cheeky you could say that “crises are a symptom of processes [in this case managers] being being out of control”!

    However I wouldn’t copy in his/her manager until a clear documented pattern occurs – it all just comes down to providing enough rope…

    I hate these managers, the ones that create a crisis to look like heroes, and I have and will happily put them in their place by managing upwards.

    Psycho managers are the only GTFO for me.

  • this has been going on since the dawn of man. “your point of view differs from mine and you challenging my reality makes me defensive”. the fatal flaw? people mistake their ideas and thoughts as their identity. it’s how countless wars have begun.

    it boils down to this – fully accept the situation as is and do everything in your power to amend the situation or… don’t. the key is acceptance. as simple as it sounds, i know it can be very difficult, egos always come into play.

    remember this, the more you butt heads with someone the more resistant to suggestion they become. their is an old technique in negotiation called pacing and leading. it basically says that first you ‘pace’ the other persons reality by telling them truths about the situation, then you slowly introduce them to your point of view.

    look at it like this, you wouldn’t teach a child how to write by yelling and thrusting the pencil at them, would you? it seems much more proactive to use guidance, understanding and enthusiasm to show them the way.

    the tricky bit is that you have to have a solid grasp of the other persons interpretation of the situation; an easy way is to remember that it is just that, an interpretation; one of many which exist in a subjective reality. ‘winning’ an argument or situation isn’t the key here because if you are constantly trying to prove a point and one up you are going to waste a lot of energy and be paranoid. it’s better just to move on.

  • The question was about arguing with an irrational person. You can’t win an argment with an irrational person.

    Because they’re irrational.

    But you can kick then in the crotch.

    Then you’re no longer in an arguement. You’re in a fight!
    And you CAN win a fight with an irrational person.
    Especially if they’ve just been kicked in the crotch!

    Hope this helps.

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