By Ariana Friedlander
Have you ever tried to rationalize with a cranky toddler? Spoiler alert, you can't!
When my daughter was three she wanted to walk on our neighbor's flowers barefoot. I told her we had to ask them if it was OK first and she responded, "But they're soft."
The more I explained to her why we couldn't just walk on our neighbor's flowers, the more she dug into her position.
"But they're soft" she declared with agitation and annoyance as though that were a perfectly logical response to what I had just said.
Dealing with an irrational person at work is a lot like rationalizing with a cranky toddler. I don't say that to insinuate that an irrational person is childish. It has more to do with understanding neuroscience and brain function, and it just so happens that toddlers beautifully exhibit this interaction dynamics due to the stage of development they are in.
Simply put, a toddler's pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed. And while toddlers can talk up a storm, their rational thinking skills, which they are still developing, quickly go offline when they are upset.
Yet I see parents (myself included at times) fall into this trap of thinking that their toddlers should be able to easily comprehend logic and reason. Usually, falling into this trap leads to a lot of yelling, crying and if you're really unlucky a full-blown tantrum.
It's not that your child is trying to be obstinate or difficult. They're upset because they don't feel a sense of connection with you and your rational explanation translates in their minds as "you don't belong here!"
Being denied connection and belonging is the ultimate insult to our sense of safety and wellbeing. As humans, we are hardwired to want to connect and belong, so when we don't our brains perceive danger and go into a threat response.
I often see this same interaction dynamics play out with clients. I worked with one client whose employee would continually undermine the executive teams' decisions. He would get really upset and complain incessantly. While his concerns were often quite valid, they were also shortsighted -- he wasn't taking into account the whole picture.
As long as my client focused on rationalizing with her employee, he remained bitter and entrenched. Meanwhile, she was getting frustrated because she felt like she was wasting time going in circles with him. It didn't seem to matter what she said, or how she said it, he wasn't receptive to her rationale and it was negatively impacting productivity as well as morale.
It wasn't until she changed tactics that the cycle was broken. Instead of responding with a perfectly rational explanation, she listened to connect. She focused on really understanding where he was coming from and empathizing with his point of view. The more she practiced listening to connect the less agitated he became.
His tone of voice softened and he stopped gearing up for a fight. As she witnessed the shift in his demeanor, she saw her opportunity to move into a more rational conversation. Since he was more responsive and engaged, she calmly explained why and how the decisions were made while he took it in.
As a result of her listening to connect, he left her office expressing gratitude instead of angrily muttering, "we'll just have to agree to disagree." And what's more, he was no longer so skeptical or resistant to following the direction of the executive team.
What my client did was simple. In order to rationalize with her employee, she focused first on forming a connection and empathizing. By doing that she co-regulated their neurochemistry in the moment so they could have a rational conversation.
When someone is being irrational it is because they're executive brain (or prefrontal cortex) is essentially offline and the lizard brain (or primitive brain) is running the show. The primitive brain cares not for facts, logic, or reason, it's primary role is to manage your basic life functions, like breathing, digestion and threat responses.
Before you can even rationalize with someone that's being irrational, you have to first re-engage their executive brain. The best way to do that is through empathy and connection.
So, what did I do about my daughter's desire to walk on the flowers? I quickly saw that my attempts to rationalize were only provoking her. So, instead of over-explaining things to her I sat on the ground, beckoned her to sit on my lap, told her I understand she really wanted to walk on the soft flowers and asked her to hold my hand while we rang our neighbor's doorbell.
Our neighbor was happy to have her walk on their extremely soft flowers. And now "but they're soft" has become a saying they use whenever emotions detract from rationale.