Reality Check: Working with Unpredictable People

While we can never predict exactly what will happen, many situations are quite predictable.
It’s painful to touch the hot stove. If I don’t believe it, it only takes one try to learn a lesson I won’t soon forget. Likewise, if I stay up too late, I’m tired the next day. And probably cranky.
We can learn a lot about the relationship between our behaviour and likely consequences from our experiences. Fortunately, we don’t have to personally experience every consequence; we can learn from other’s experiences, too!
Some outcomes are easy to predict, especially when they involve someone else’s behaviour. For example, “If she keeps picking fights with her boss, she’s going to get fired.” Or, “If he keeps drinking like that, he’s going to be in real trouble.” It’s easy enough to predict what will happen in cases like those.
However, not every situation leads to such clear cause:effect relationships.
That’s especially true when we need to deal with people whom we perceive to be unpredictable. It’s difficult to feel comfortable and in control of our lives when we’re never sure what someone will do or how they’ll react.
If that’s your situation, then you might be able to gain a sense of control if you can better understand this perceived unpredictability. Here are a few possibilities to help you determine whether you’re dealing with true unpredictability or if there are patterns to be uncovered.
First, according to Dr. Glasser’s choice theory, all of us humans have a basic need for freedom. For some people, that’s a very strong need; for others, it’s lower.
One way to satisfy our need for freedom could be to deliberately choose actions that keep others off guard. For example, perhaps you are in a relationship where the other person shows no consistency; they constantly keep you guessing about their intentions or actions.
Are they truly being unpredictable? Or are they attempting to satisfy their need for freedom? If Billy tells you, “I hate routine,” and then demonstrates that he hates routine by taking unexpected actions at odd times and places, he may not be as much unpredictable as he is freedom-seeking.
A second possibility is that the behaviour you are seeing is not really unpredictable, it’s just not the behaviour that you want. Your teenager tells you, “Yes Mom; I’ll be in by 10.” Midnight rolls around; no teenager to be seen.
Is that an example of your child acting unpredictably? It depends. Has it happened a few times? If so, then the problem is not really one of unpredictability, is it?
Finally, a third possibility to consider is the relationship between the person’s actions and their words. Do their actions correspond to their words?
People sometimes say what they think we want to hear, possibly because it’s easier than telling the truth. As long as we like what we are hearing, we can pretend that there’s no conflict that we need to deal with. But just because someone says something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, does it?
For example, your boss has been telling you every single week that you will have the weekend off. Every Friday, without fail, it turns out that you are scheduled to work. Is that an issue of unpredictability? Not really. It is an issue of inconsistency of words and deeds. That has its difficulties, but it’s not a difficulty of unpredictability.
If you believe that you are at the mercy of an unpredictable person, try keeping some notes. Ask yourself, “Are their actions predictable, even if their words are not consistent?” Check for patterns. Maybe there’s more predictability there than meets the eye!
Have you had to deal with unpredictable people? How did you manage?

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