How to Deal with Irrational People (aka everyone)

When I was at Stanford, I did my undergrad degree in Economics. For a brief time, I considered majoring in Psychology and took a number of classes in that field.

During this time, I was always puzzled by an inherent conflict between the fields of economics and psychology.

Economics presumes “man” (and woman) is rational. Psychology presumes he is irrational.

At the time, I could never figure out which premise was correct.

It was only a decade later that I finally figured out the answer...

ALL people are irrational at least some of the time... especially in situations with high uncertainty (where logic has no data to work with), high emotional charge (that overwhelm one’s ability to reason logically), or high perceived stakes (e.g., a once in a lifetime opportunity with no chance for a 2nd attempt).

Stated differently, all human beings (including MBB consultants) are emotional creatures. I think this understanding is woefully under-appreciated in the management consulting industry.

Consultants value logic, facts, and analysis above all else. Emotions are generally frowned upon and looked down upon as something that influences clients, but not the emotionally stoic management consultant.

If you were to call a McKinsey consultant illogical, that would be considered an epic insult.

I find the disdain for irrationality (i.e., being emotional) in management consulting to be the industry’s weakness.

Consultants will prize the logically correct recommendation without much consideration of the emotional ramifications of their recommendations on the client and the client’s organization.

This is the number one reason why logically correct strategic plans written by MBB consultants often do not get implemented by the “irrational” client (aka human being).

In a moment, I’ll share with you one tip for how to approach any kind of situation where people are involved.

Before I do, let me introduce a concept that comes from the software engineering world. It’s called meta data. Meta data is secondary data that describes primary data.

For example, if you take a photo on your smart phone, the actual image is “the data.” The time stamp, GPS coordinates, and the file size of the photo would be the meta data.

Another example of meta data comes from Hollywood screenwriting. In a script, the words the actor is supposed to say is called the text. How the actor is supposed to say the words and the meaning the actor gives to the words is called the subtext.

For example, in a stereotypical example, girl and boy fall in love. Boy makes mistake. Girl is unhappy. Boy asks, “Is everything okay?”

Girl says, “Everything is FINE.”

Now if you take the words literally, there is no problem. He asks if there is a problem. She says everything is okay. End of story.

Yet most of us realize that when a woman stereotypically says, “FINE” (depending on how she says it), she means the exact opposite. (At least this is what Hollywood has taught us.)

In this case, the literal words are the data (the text). The intention behind the words is the meta data (the subtext).

Two years ago, I took a screenwriting class from legendary screenwriting teacher Robert McKee. At the most recent Oscar nominations, his former students received 20 (yes, twenty) Oscar nominations. He’s a legend in Hollywood.

He said if your actors mean exactly what they say (that is the text = subtext, or the data = meta data) that’s known as a sh*tty (e.g., lousy) script.


Because it’s boring.

There is no drama. There is no tension. It’s boring.

I believe the inverse is often true.

If there is drama, tension, and intensity in a real life situation, often the data and meta data are NOT the same. In such a real life situation, what is being said and what is being MEANT are different.

So what does this mean for you?

In a situation with a client, boss, or significant other, if you’re noticing a lot of drama, that’s a sign to look at the situation not from a data standpoint, but from a meta data standpoint.

There is the literal conversation that’s taking place (the words), and there’s the emotional conversation that’s taking place silently (the feelings and emotions being exchanged).

The key is to know when the conversation is not about the literal meaning of the words being exchanged, but rather about the SYMBOLIC meaning the words silently represent to one or both people.

Communication is strained when one person is being literal and the other person is being symbolic. Communication can be downright disastrous when both people are having a conversation about their individual symbolic representations of the literal words being exchanged.

So what should you do about it?

While the complete answer could easily take an entire day to explain and teach, I will pass along one actionable tip for you.

When a conversation is getting dramatic and intense, and you suspect the conversation is no longer about the literal words being exchanged, then do the following:


That’s it.

For example, let's go back to my romantic comedy example:

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy makes mistake. Girl is unhappy. Boy says, “Is everything ok?” Girl says, “Everything is FINE.”

Using this tip, the boy now does the following...

1) Boy notices girl says “everything is okay,” but girl's curt tone of voice, folded arms, glaring eye contact seems incongruent with the literal words.

2) Boy thinks to himself, "Hey, we have a possible meta data or subtext situation here."

3) Boy says to girl, “When you say FINE, do you mean everything is okay, or do you mean everything is NOT okay?”

Notice how boy VERIFIES INTENT with girl who said everything is “FINE.”

This mechanism explicitly transitions a conversation so that text and subtext are one and the same... that data and meta data are basically identical.

(I know I’m not using data and meta data in its technically most accurate way, but hopefully I’ve made my point.)

This plays out differently depending on context, situation and the people involved. In a budget meeting or strategic planning executive team review meeting, when one person says, “The proposal seems risky,” what exactly do they really mean?

Does she mean the plan literally seems risky? Or does she mean she’s concerned that her department’s budget would be reduced as a consequence of the proposal? Or does she really mean she’s afraid she would lose power, influence and career security if the new proposal was adopted?

In most circumstances, you want to verify intent and make explicit what everyone is meaning — not just what they are saying.

However, sometimes it’s too scary to say out loud what one really means. Maybe the concern is not socially acceptable.

For example, if you object to a strategic plan, it’s not a socially acceptable excuse to say you are concerned about your personal job security. In this kind of situation, even if you verify intent, the other person will deny their actual concern — especially if the conversation takes place in public amongst peers.

In a personal relationship such as between two friends, parent-child, or two spouses, maybe the argument of one person canceling plans on another isn’t a concern about the cancelation. Maybe it’s the person who got canceled on last minute feeling they aren’t important to the other person.

The single best way to emotionally deescalate a situation is to take the symbolic conversation, verify intent, and turn the conversation into a literal one instead.

The model above skews towards Western culture (but even in Western culture, really good communication that’s focused on the literal doesn’t happen all that often).

Some cultures do not favor literal conversations. In these cultures, you may need to communicate entirely at the level of symbolism.

In those cases, you need to add extra steps to see the literal words being said, interpret the symbolism the other person is likely to be perceiving, figure out how you want to respond literally, then convert your literal intent into a more culturally acceptable symbolic representation of what you mean.

Regardless of what culture you live or work within, the tool of “verifying intent” can be a useful one to have in your intellectual “tool bag.”

It’s a great tool for excellent (aka clear) communication with others.

The only “downside” is that your life might then become devoid of drama, chaos and unnecessary stress.

I hope you find this advanced consulting skill useful in your career and in your personal life.

If so, you may wish to consider my Ultimate Consultant Toolkit. It’s a 14-hour audio lecture series where I teach some of the advanced skills (like the one described above) that MBB consultants use on the job.

If you’re seeking to get ahead working in industry, the toolkit is one way to learn MBB-caliber professional skills without having to actually work at MBB. I highly recommend it. To learn more click here: Ultimate Consultant Toolkit

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6 comments… add one
  • Nick Mar 24, 2015, 10:29 am

    I think you may be overestimating the ability of the typical human to engage into a rational conversation about meta-data, especially when they are of the emotional nature. It is not merely that the employee may not want to discuss in public and openly about his/her real concerns and it is not merely that the girl, after the boy brings the meta-data into focus, might say “Oh, gee, you are right! I meant I am not OK. What an insightful observation!!”. There is a good *reason* why they chose to provide (or could not refrain from providing) this information as sub-context.
    I believe that the best course of action in these situations is to not bring the meta-data to the front directly, but rather address them indirectly. Namely, without mentioning *anything* about job security (so as not to put the employee into a defensive mode) to start addressing and explaining, in an indirect way, all the reasons (if you are lucky to have some) why this move will not jeopardize his/her job security. And for the girl, the only thing that can save you if you are (emotionally) intelligent enough to figure out fast why not everything is fine, and address that, most likely with emotionally sensitive behavior, so that she will not feel, say unimportant to you, or whatever the reason is that she is like that, *without* making her realize that this is what you are doing. When you *verify intent* in an explicit way, you risk putting people in an embarrassing situation, which will then make them more defensive. You do need to address the issue hidden in the meta-data, but you need to do it secretly and effectively. Yes, I am saying the best way is to treat people like babies (on an emotional level). This is the best way I have found that has a chance of working. It is extremely intellectually draining, and it takes a LOT of patience, if done correctly, so it does comes with a price.

    • Victor Cheng Apr 7, 2015, 9:05 pm


      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They’ve been quite thought provoking as I’ve been thinking about what you wrote for the past few weeks before replying.

      If one is able to be effective completely using an indirect communication style, it’s certainly one valid option — provided one is actually being effective.

      In my experience, there are many more people who use an indirect communication style — assume it’s effective, when it’s not. If ne never has direct communication, one can’t calibrate how effective or not effective previous indirect communication efforts have been.

      The problem with indirect communication is there is far too much to be left up to interpretation. Two people can interpret the identical situation completely differently. Further, two people can interpret the identical situation differently and without direct communication not realize or be able to predict who the other person is interpreting the situation differently.

      I do agree that direct communication has it’s challenges. To those who are not accustomed to receiving it, it can feel a bit confrontational (especially if it is done poorly). Defensiveness can be a reaction to direct communication.

      These challenges can be managed. For example, HOW you do direct communication matters a lot. If you do it aggressively, it will definitely cause a defensive reaction. If you initiate direct communication with a neutral tone, it doesn’t have to produce such a reaction.

      In my life, I’ve often tried the indirect approach. Then I or the other person switches to a direct approach. I am always surprised how often I did not see the other person’s point of view without asking for explicit clarification. I’m also shocked, just shocked how often my point of view was misunderstood by the other person. To me is seemed obvious (to me) how I saw things.

      It is over time and many experiences that I realized, wow we humans see the same situation so vastly differently at times.

      You indicated that we should interact with all (or most) people with an indirect communication style — and treat most of them like babies. I think there is a reason why babies cry more than any other age group in our population — in addition to being physically and emotionally sensitive overall, a baby’s needs are misunderstood more often than any other age group.

      I’ve raised three daughters and it was hard when they were babies. They couldn’t always tell me what they needed, and I couldn’t ask them in a way they would understand.

      After much crying, I finally figured out what they wanted — mostly through pattern recognition (time of day, elapsed time since last diaper change, elapsed time since waking up from nap, etc…)

      In addition, once a baby matures into a young child, it is possible to use a direct communication style with a child (or even an adult acting like one!). With my children, I use this style (and am also role modeling it so they learn it as a life skill).

      When they were two years, capable of understanding language and responding to simple question, I would often teach them about emotions.

      “Honey you seem frustrated… or angry… are you frustrated?”

      A young child will often “act out” via undesirable behavior when they aren’t able to identify the bodily sensation they are feeling. When it looks like frustration to me, and I repeatedly say, “You seem frustrated.” they eventually increase their emotional intelligence.

      As older children now, they routinely tell me if they are frustrated, angry, or any other emotion they are feeling. They are able to communicate with me in a direct communication style because they are used to it and have developed those skills.

      These skills are NOT inherent with age. You don’t acquire them merely by getting older. They are not really taught in schools. They are most commonly taught (or not taught) in the home by one’s parents or caregivers.

      I was not taught this way of interacting as a child. I had to learn it much later in life as an adult. My interactions with others are so much simpler now. It is so much easier to verify intent than it is to guess, act accordingly, and never verify intent. So many opportunities for misunderstanding. Repeat the process several times and you not only get misunderstanding, but layers and layers of misunderstandings.

      In closing if the indirect communication style is effective for you, it can be a valid option. I know I am not capable or talented enough to make it work for me.

      I do know a very tiny percentage of people who can be effective using that style, but they also happen to be excellent direct style communicators as well. They are so adept at direct communication and also knowing other people extremely well, that they can tell when the direct approach is likely to be problematic.


  • darren Mar 12, 2015, 8:19 am

    this is extremely insightful.

  • david fuchs Jan 30, 2015, 3:35 pm

    your comments are unreal for one not influenced or guided by the hollywood pretence or jargon.

    The reason can be analysed, but the subconscious mind has no analytical capability. so habits prevail ( brainwashing ) is the easiest approach for the subconscious mind which is lazy and sticks if possible to its habits. Any sensible person in a relationship can feel emotionally what is happening.

    • Harinath Feb 10, 2015, 10:47 am

      David you have a point but often conflicts jolts us out of our comfort situation activating survival instincts and ego. In this game of mind, the end reaction is often based on tool repository of oneself. The awareness victor created among us will instinctively (subconsciously)kicks and force us to consider data and meta data perspectives of the situation in our decision making. This is how I know these tips to work and make us effective in a given situation.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 10, 2015, 11:36 am


      One of the principles of software design is to test your software o make sure it works before allowing users to use it. One of my observation of where initial software design flaws are discovered is not in the most common usage of the software, but in usage scenarios that are less common. The term used to describe this is “edge case”.

      I’m not entirely sure where this term comes from, but I suspect it might be from a probability such as the standard bell curve. In this bell curve, it’s the activities that happen at both tails of the curve that logical software design often fails to consider. It’s what happens to a software system with a very high usage load which sometimes causes events to occur that only uccurs when usage is past a critical threshold, or less commonly used devices or operating system versions are used with the software, and the like.

      What I’ve found when it comes to human beings is they (myself included) act funny around edge case scenarios.

      I have yet to set a single person where this is not the case. And even if that isn’t the case for you, it’s useful to realize it may be the case for everyone else – perhaps not all the time, but only during edge cases.

      I saw this at McKinsey all the time. These are some of the most logical and analytical people in the world. These are people with MBA’s, PhD, and in a few cases full tenure professorships at Ivy League universities. Ad they too stated acting bizarre in the 6 months prior to the Firm deciding whether or not they would be elected to the partnership.


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