Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options with an
"Irresponsible" Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/irresponsible.htm

Updated  01-25-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you judge to be "irresponsible." It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.


      What words do you associate with the word "responsible"? Duty? Accountable? Reliable? Dependable? Competent? Skilled? Function? Job description? Dedication? Do you think of yourself as responsible? Would others agree? 

      Responsibility can be described as an expectation between two or more people about who should fill who's needs, how, and when. The expectation may be negotiated, assumed, or imposed. The quality of relationships and groups depends on how well people understand, accept, and fulfill their responsibilities to each other

      Have you known irresponsible adults and kids in your life? Was their behavior a "problem" for you? Have you ever wondered what causes irresponsibility? Possibilities:

  • someone imposed a responsibility on them they didn't want and/or can't fulfill;

  • they pretended to agree to be responsible because they feared saying "no" (displeasing someone or losing something);

  • they didn't agree to something but someone thought they did;

  • they didn't understand what was expected of them, and didn't ask;

  • they don't know what they need, or how to assert their needs effectively;

  • their idea of their responsibility differs from others around them;

  • their values and priorities differed significantly from others around them;

  • they were indifferent to - or overwhelmed by - others' dependence on them;

  • they were afraid being responsible would cause them pain; and/or...

  • something else. 

      The range of these reasons suggests that irresponsible is a vague, prejudicial label that masks the real personal and relationship problem/s This vagueness greatly reduces the chance for win-win problem-solving and preserving trust, respect, and harmony.

      If you have kids in your life, you know that they're apt to be less responsible than healthy adults. They "forget," or promise something and don't follow through. We may forgive this in kids, but expect adults to "keep their word" and "do their duty."

      How do you feel when confronted with an "irresponsible" adult? Disappointed? Irritated? Frustrated? Startled? Scornful? Critical? Combative? Hurt? angry? Forgiving? "Nothing"? Your response may vary with your roles, your setting, your age, your gender, your past history wit the person, any biases you inherited, gossip, your needs and responsibilities, and your values and integrity. Notice the implication - you are half-responsible for how you react to the other person's perceived behavior!

Response Options

      You have many choices. Start by reviewing the definition of an effective response (above). Then select from these...

  • Mentally review these basic options until they become automatic.

  • Identify how you feel because of the other person's behavior. Your feelings point reliably to what you need.

  • Clarify whether you're bothered by the irresponsibility affecting you, someone else, or both.

  • Identify what you need from your response - to vent? Inform? Learn? Set or enforce a limit? Cause change? Confront? :Problem solve? Something else? Caution - If you want to complain, punish, criticize,  belittle, fight, argue, or demand, you're probably ruled by a false self.    

  • Choose from responses like these, depending on what you need to accomplish...

"(Name), I'm disappointed / frustrated / aggravated. You're responsible for _______, and you didn't do it."

"When you don't do what you're responsible for, I lose respect and trust in you."

"Are you clear on what your responsibility about ________ is?"

"(Name), who do you feel is responsible for __________ ?"

"I thought you agreed that you would do _________. Am I wrong?"

"If you choose to (be irresponsible) again, I'm going to (take a specific action)."

"If you're unable to __________, I need you to tell me promptly and arrange for backup."

"I don't like not being able to count on you for ______________."

"If you don't want to (do some duty) I need you to say so up front."

      Notice the theme of these examples. They're brief, direct, respectful, honest, and to the point. They omit long explanations, repetition, bringing up the past, catastrophizing, moralizing, hinting, apologizing, sugar-coating, excusing, and flooding (bringing up many problems at once).

      Expect the other person to "resist" responses like these - e.g. to ramble, whine, excuse, explain, argue, deny, minimize, change the subject, blame you (or someone), etc. When they do, acknowledge them with respectful empathic listening, and repeat your response until you feel well heard or your needs change.    


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to annoying social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on responsibility, (b) explanations for irresponsibility, and (c) options for responding effectively to an irresponsible adult. The options are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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