The Power — and Limitation — of Rational Thought

You can't always meet raw emotion with common sense.

In the last few years, I've consciously injected a healthy dose of rational thought into my brain. Through The Profile, I've studied people and analyzed the mental frameworks they use to make sound decisions in their lives.

The further I got away from experiencing sudden emotional tirades, the better I felt. I was able to remain calm in stressful situations and remain logical when others couldn't.

Rationality seemed like a superpower that couldn't fail. Except when it did.

I recently dealt with someone who was solely operating on feelings backed with no evidence while I was trying to convince them to calmly look at the facts. When I told my husband about it, he said, "Your mistake is that you're trying to be rational in an irrational situation."

That's the thing — You can't always meet raw emotion with common sense.

Last week, I watched Worth, a movie based on the life of Kenneth Feinberg, the mediator in nearly all of America's crises.

In one scene, Feinberg meets with Sept. 11 victims in order to decide who receives compensation — and how much — for their suffering. The meeting goes downhill as soon as he presents a formula that would determine the monetary value of their loved ones' lives.

One man stands up and asks, "Why do we need a formula? Why isn't it equal payment for everybody? My daughter's life was worth just as much as anybody in a corner office." A woman follows up: "My boy was a firefighter. Was he worth less than the guy pushing pencils and trading stock?"

Feinberg is confused by the criticism because he understands how the system works and that lawsuits against the airlines, for example, would never turn out in favor of the individual. To him, the logical thing to do would be to take advantage of the victim compensation fund money.

This is the exchange between Feinberg and his law partner Camille:

Feinberg: "They don't understand this is for their own good. The airlines would bury them in litigation until they had nothing left."

Camille: "You think I don't know what? This is different. Didn't you feel it in there? Our other cases like this — Agent Orange, Asbestos — were settled after years in court. People had moved on. These people aren't there yet."

Feinberg: "Camille, they're emotional right now. We need to be objective toward them. That's all."

Needless to say, he quickly figures out that the objective approach is the wrong strategy.

Here's the thing: Most people are emotional beings. (Our own language emphasizes emotion over reason.) They don't want you to tell them about a formula, they want you to hear their story. Even though it may seem irrational, Feinberg realized that in emotionally-laden situations, his role is to listen to the families recount their grief and love for the ones they’ve lost. He ended up meeting with 950 victims in person, with eight to 10 meetings per day.

The most effective and successful people understand that sometimes you need to meet emotion with emotion, no matter how irrational it may seem. They've figured out that emotions make the world go round. Relationships, markets, businesses, and dining experiences are all influenced by these mushy things we call "feelings."

In The Profile's most recent Dossier, I told the story of Danny Meyer's rise to legendary restaurateur. His first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, was a massive success largely because Meyer's priority was not the food, the menu, or the decor. It was about how the overall dining experience made customers feel.

“Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel," he says. "It’s that simple, and it’s that hard."

Of course, the facts are important: Does the food taste good? Is it served on time? Are the table linens clean? But none of that matters if the overall experience feels bad.

When Meyer first opened Gramercy Tavern, he had lost sight of that. It took one of his customers to tell him directly. She said this new restaurant felt nothing like Union Square Cafe. She realized this after her salmon was overcooked, explaining:

“Well, first of all, no one noticed. At Union Square Cafe, they would have noticed, they would have come up, and they would have discreetly asked me if I’d like to have it re-cooked, but no one noticed and I wasn’t gonna say anything because I’m trying to entertain other people.

But there it sat, and I took a couple of bites because I had to eat something even though I didn’t like it. And at the end of the meal, your manager came up to me and said, ‘The rest of your salmon, would you like me to put it in the coat check room so you can take it home?’ And I was like, ‘What are you, kidding me?’ He then leaves it on the bill.

At Union Square Cafe, they would have taken it off the bill, they would have brought me something else with your compliments, what’s going on here?”

This is when Meyer began defining hospitality as one preposition: “for.” He says, "If you feel like the other guy did something for you, that’s hospitality. If you think about every single transaction you go through in life, you don’t necessarily feel like they did something for you. In fact, sometimes you feel like they did something to you."

The rational approach would've been for the customer to politely ask the waiter to re-cook the salmon, but she expected the staff to read her cues and proactively rectify the situation. While it seemed obvious to her, it may have appeared irrational to everyone else.

The key in a situation like this one is to meet emotion with empathy while making rational steps to move forward. Meyer listened to her concerns, apologized, and made her feel heard. The next day, he spoke to his staff about "enlightened hospitality" and instructed them on how to practically handle a customer experience like this one.

By listening, asking questions, and understanding your counterpart's point of view, you can better understand when to meet someone with emotion rather than reason.

It's never just about the salmon, and it's never just about the money. Sometimes, the only way to get someone to dip a toe in the crystal pool of rational thought is to wade through the messy swamp of emotions first.

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