With "Unreasonable Demands"
Stress Management from Mind Tools
Demands that seem unreasonable
can be a tremendous source of stress.
These often arise when innocent situations
come together and reinforce one another
to create stressful, extreme, and unfeasible
demands on you. For example, if you are
in a customer service role, several customers
can be clamoring for completion of large
jobs at the same time. This becomes intensely
stressful when you only have the resource
to service a few of them.
Similarly, enthusiastic middle managers
can amplify the importance of simple, low
priority requests from senior managers,
creating unwarranted pressure on implementation
teams. In other situations, requirements
can be misunderstood when transmitted from
person-to-person, the importance of deadlines
can be overstated, and requests can be made
in ignorance of key pieces of information.
Obviously, real emergencies can also occur.
Resolving these can often require extreme
and unpleasant levels of activity from all
In all of these cases, and in many others,
reasonable people can make unreasonable
demands with or without knowing it. If you
add into this the concept of “stretch
goals”, the fact that people making
requests may not have correctly appreciated
the situation, and the fact that that people
may be playing normal commercial games,
you can see how problems arise.
This tool helps you to work through apparently
unreasonable demands to understand what
lies behind them, and develop appropriate
solutions to them. It helps you to work
effectively with the person making the demand
to find a satisfactory solution, rather
than just assuming that the other person
is “difficult and unreasonable”.
This helps you to reduce the stress that
these situations can cause.
Using the Tool:
The Diagram below shows you a process for
working through apparently unreasonable
By using this process, you can ensure that:
- The situation has not arisen as a result
of a misunderstanding;
- You have fairly tried to understand
the other person’s position;
- You have explored all reasonable ways
to meet the demands; and
- You have tried to negotiate a fair
Each step in the diagram is explained below:
1. Check Your Information
The first stage of this process is simply
to make sure of your information. Check
that you have not made any incorrect assumptions.
Then check that you fully understand what
you are being asked to do. Finally, confirm
when it needs to be delivered. If you are
set a deadline, understand why that deadline
has been set, and what happens if it is
not met. You may find that deadlines are
actually much more flexible and arbitrary
than they initially appear.
2. Look From the Other
If things still seem unreasonable, try looking
at the situation from the other person’s
perspective. Make sure you are fully aware
of all of the facts. For example, if you
are working at full capacity and someone
asks you to take on more priority work,
they might not know how much work you have
on. Explain the situation to them, and try
to negotiate an appropriate solution.
“Negotiate" is an overloaded
word. It conjures up images of sophisticated
ploys and subtle gamesmanship. While
this can be true in very important negotiations
with a great deal at stake, what “negotiate”
normally means is "find a mutually
acceptable solution". This is often
easy, and is something we do all the
It is also quite possible that what seems
unreasonable to you, might seem fine to
someone else. For example, if you are new
to a company, it might have a longer hours
culture than you are used to. As another
example, a client needing to place a priority
order may expect it to be turned around
in a reasonable time - the fact that your
production process is backlogged may not
interest them. Come to a fair view of what
is right in the set circumstances with which
you have to work, and then manage the situation
3. Explore Your Alternatives
and the Cost of the Alternatives:
If the demand still seems unreasonable,
think through all the ways in which you
might try to meet it. A little lateral
thinking may help you to find a solution.
Evaluate the impact of any possible solution.
4. Explain Your Perception
Using the techniques we described in our
article, arrange a meeting and explain the
situation as you see it in an assertive
5. Agree or Disagree,
and Manage the Consequences
By this stage, you will have done everything
that you can reasonably be expected to do
to meet the unreasonable demand.
It is still quite possible that you may
not have agreed on a fair way forward. The
other person may be trying to squeeze you
to get a better deal than is normal. This
is quite often the case in tough commercial
negotiations (particularly where the other
person does not expect to have to do business
with you again).
Alternatively (this is unpleasant) they
may have political “hidden agendas”
and may want you to fail or be disadvantaged.
This is where you need to know your “BATNA”
– your Best Alternative To a Negotiated
Agreement. This is the course of action
or outcome that is open to you if you do
not agree to meet the unreasonable demand.
You also need to have an idea of what the
future value of the relationship might be,
as making a sacrifice now may bring strong
benefit in the future.
If your BATNA is good, then the other person
may have little power to impose the demand
on you. Either use your BATNA to negotiate
good compensation for coping with the unreasonable
demand, or reject it.
If your BATNA is poor, then you may have
to agree to the demand. Even if this is
the case, try to negotiate some form of
fair compensation for any pain you have
If you choose to turn down the demand,
make sure that you manage
this with all of the stakeholders who
will be affected - this gives them the opportunity
to support you and help to manage the consequences.
It is far too easy to immediately jump to
the conclusion that someone is a “bad
person” when they make an unreasonable
demand of you. In reality, people can make
unreasonable demands for a whole range of
good and bad reasons.
This tool gives
you a process for working through seemingly
unreasonable demands. This involves the
- Checking your information and assumptions;
- Looking from the other person’s
- Exploring the alternatives;
- Explaining your perceptions assertively;
- Agreeing or disagreeing, and managing
If you choose to turn down the demand,
make sure that you explain the reasons for
this to all
appropriate stakeholders. We talk about
to find out about stakeholder analysis...