The neighbor who lives below my apartment is filled with rage. He carries anger like it’s a luxury handbag, waving it around whenever the opportunity arises. The smallest thing will set him off. A week ago my roommate dropped her laptop on the floor in her bedroom. Two minutes later she heard a loud banging on our door. She answered and standing there, flaring at the nostrils, was our downstairs neighbor. He started yelling, “What are you guys doing up here? What was that noise?”

My roommate, wearing her pajamas and holding a toothbrush in one hand replied, “Nothing, we’re getting ready for bed. I accidentally dropped my laptop.”

He yelled, “You broke four light bulbs in my apartment. They could have fallen on me.”

Pause. Where is this conversation going? I think it’s clear she didn’t drop her laptop on the floor on purpose.

My roommate was apologetic but that was not enough for downstairs neighbor. He texted our other roommate the next morning reiterating the story and making it clear he was still angry. We have a muddy history with him and it isn’t going to improve. To appease him, my roommate texted him “We’re very sorry blah blah blah and let me know if it happens again.”

Based on other interactions I can assure you that this man is not rational. He is filled with fear and frustration and he converts it to anger just for kicks. The challenge is figuring out how to literally and figuratively tip-toe around so that we don’t wake the sleeping giant. He has put me into a real funk in the past and I don’t want him to have that power over me anymore.

My friend Julie is currently enrolled in a Clinical Psychology program in Massachusetts. She just received en route master’s degree in Professional Psychology and has 1.5 years left until she finishes her doctorate (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology. I asked her to share some tips on how to deal with “irrational” people so that your interactions are as productive and drama-free as possible. You don’t want someone else’s funk bleeding over into your life.

Tips for dealing with irrational people:

1) Manage your expectations. Understand that the irrational person may easily get defensive and be unable to hear what you are communicating in the way that you mean it. If something goes awry, politely end the conversation and suggest that you resume it at a later point.

2) Practice the “soft startup.” John Gottman, a prominent couples therapy researcher, describes entering a conflict with a soft startup, which can alter the outcome of an argument with even an irrational person if done skillfully. Remember that most conversations end in the same way that they begin. Start the conversation with something positive, like “I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about this, I understand that you are busy.”

3) Use “I” statements. To avoid eliciting defensiveness, make it clear to the person that what you are communicating is your perspective, not fact. For example, “I feel attacked/upset when you react so strongly/with so much anger to something that was a simple mistake.”

4) Try to avoid making assumptions about the way the person is feeling or the way they will react. Make the conversation equitable by allowing them to express their perspective in equal amounts (no matter how much you disagree with it).

5) Use reflective listening. The person will feel more heard and validated if you convey your understanding of what they have said. Once you have done this, it may be easier to disagree without them perceiving this as attacking. i.e. “So you feel that I am being disrespectful by having friends over on the weekends and being louder than usual. I understand this, but I feel it is my right to have friends over to my home as long as our noise level and the hour are within reason. Might we be able to set up some fair parameters to avoid conflict over this issue in the future?”

References:
Gottman, J.M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically-Based Marital Therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Batista, E. (2007). The Value of Soft Startups. Retrieved from: http://www.edbatista.com/2007/01/the_value_of_so.html

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