Why everyone else looks unreasonable

“Wow, he’s being a dick” is my particular shorthand for “That gentleman is behaving a little unreasonably”.

But when we see someone acting in a way which seems unreasonable, it’s important that we remember that we don’t have the full picture.

Their behaviour might be inappropriate for the current circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable.

Our behaviours have many components, two of which are: root causes and triggers.

The problem is that we often see what triggers other people’s unreasonable behaviour, but not the root cause, which gives it context.

When we see someone drop a box of eggs in the supermarket and burst into tears, it looks unreasonable. The behaviour (crying) is disproportionate to the trigger (breaking a box of eggs). But if that person had suffered a personal tragedy (root cause) earlier in the day, then the crying might suddenly look both appropriate and justified.

We all think we’re reasonable, and that it’s just other people who aren’t. That’s because we have access to our own root causes – the events and history which place our behaviour in context – but everyone else’s are hidden from us. And ours are hidden from other people.

This doesn’t mean that we have to accept behaviour from others which is rude, harmful or insincere, but it’s worth understanding that from their point of view, it might be reasonable.

Looking for the trigger

Old pistols by Michael Coghlan

Most of the time, I’m pretty good at gauging someone’s level of interest in a conversation and course correcting to suit.

Sometimes it’s obvious: their eyes begin to dart around, or their posture changes a little. Sometimes it’s more subtle and you couldn’t say why, but you just know, that they’d rather be washing an angry cat (not a euphemism) than standing there taking to you.

At that point you can either:

  1. plow on anyway
  2. shut the conversation down and let them go, or
  3. try to find something which they do want to hear (or a better way of presenting what you have to say).

Number 1 is a bit of a non-starter, so I try to go for 2 or 3 where possible.

But there are some people for whom I just can’t help but pursue option 1. I know they’re bored, or would rather be somewhere else, but I can’t seem to translate it into action.

I don’t shut it down, I don’t change tactic. I know I’m in a hole, but for some reason, I just decide to keep digging.

This doesn’t happen with everyone, just a few, select (unfortunate) people for whom I can’t stop talking about shit they would rather not hear. And it happens regularly. But why?

In cases like this when you know what you want to do in a given situation, but you’re not doing it – the trick is to look for the trigger.

What’s triggering the behaviour you don’t want (in my case, boring people to death)?

In the instance above, the clue was that it was always the same people.

They were always people whom I admired and wanted approval from. My desire to form a connection with these people was overriding all the warning signs that I was boring the shit out of them. How ironic (but only in the Alanis Morrisette way).

Once I knew that chasing their approval was the trigger for talking at them like an idiot. Once you identify the trigger, you can at least have a shot at not pulling it by accident.

Helpfully, most of our bad habits follow the same structure. We want to do A, but instead we do B. The answer? Look for the trigger.

That’s not to say that when you find the trigger, it’s easy to avoid pulling it. But you’re at least more aware of what’s happening, and that’s often half the battle.

Now when I’m in a conversation and I’ve dug myself (and someone else) into a boredom hole, I can at least have the presence of mind to understand what’s happening and try to climb out.

Sometimes you can just step out of the hole. Sometimes you can climb out. Sometimes you have to dig up.