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Understanding Hanlon’s Razor – and why it will change your life.

My last blog was about a concept I call, “A Preponderance of Kindness.”

It simply means that one should consider being kind, first and foremost, when facing something difficult–even if, per my last blog, it’s a microaggression, or, perhaps, a full-blown aggression.  I won’t rehash it here, but shoot me an email or give me a call if you want to talk further.

That blog begged two very real and appropriate questions:

  1. WHY should I be calm in the face of someone who is being aggressive towards me?
  2. HOW am I able to be calm in the face of someone who is being aggressive towards me?

The answer to #1 is deeply personal and idiosyncratic, and I would simply suggest that it’s a better way to live (see my last blog) and a way to heal the world.  Just saying.

The answer to #2 is:

Hanlon’s Razor

Hanlon’s Razor is a philosophical principle that reads, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance.” The actual quote uses the word “stupidity,” which I’ve replaced with “ignorance.”

When I developed The Alternative Response Method and wrote my book The Art of Quality Decision-Making, I was following many principles, the most important of which was that this new method of decision-making and living a better life had to be implementable.

Hanlon’s Razor is a way to implement a Preponderance of Kindness. Applying Hanlon’s Razor helps you remain calm in the face of perceived, or real, aggression and helps make the world a kinder, more accepting place.

Hanlon’s Razor works with family, friends, business, and in dealing with challenging situations like road rage and other situations where we must address poor or questionable behaviors of others.

Here are a couple of examples, one of which shares how I dropped the ball.

Business Example 1:

In my technical consulting firm, just two weeks ago we received a panicked call from a client. My staff and I were on the project the next day and jumped through hoops providing guidance (at no charge) and developing a comprehensive proposal. Yet, in following up with our contact, he wouldn’t return calls, emails, or text messages.

I became increasingly annoyed.  We had spent all of this time and effort, and he didn’t have the courtesy to return our calls.

I think one’s inclination, certainly mine, is to immediately think the worst:  He just picked our brain and is now working with another vendor.  Our proposal was too expensive or written poorly.  Our presentation was flawed. I spoke too much, or not enough, during the presentation.

However, using Hanlon’s Razor, I was able to think of other possibilities to explain why he was not responding to our calls:

  1. Maybe he was ill.
  2. Maybe there was an issue with his family.
  3. Maybe he was fired.
  4. Maybe there was some emergency at the plant.
  5. Maybe he was waiting to call back with a PO.
  6. Perhaps there was some other reason I had not considered.

It turns out that, in fact, there was a family emergency and he had to leave the country on short notice.  We got the P.O. 8 days later.

Business Example 2:

We were engaged by a Fortune 500 global firm to provide a half-day ARM workshop for their highly technical sales team.

These professionals were the tip of the spear in this organization of more than 60,000.  But, being high performers, they often became stressed waiting to hear back from a client about a proposal, presentation or opportunity. This stress often translated into reduced morale, lack of motivation and, in some cases, perseveration on one single account when time and resources could be better spent cultivating a new account or revisiting a warm lead.

By learning to embrace and implement Hanlon’s Razor, the sales team dramatically reduced their stress and were able to think more strategically about how to spend their time. Instead of losing time and energy worrying over a specific client, they learned to set aside the emotional drain of wondering what had gone wrong and instead confidently move on to make two, three or five new calls with no loss of enthusiasm. Further, as with most ARM principals and tools, they were able to incorporate Hanlon’s Razor at home, and in their personal lives, enhancing their overall bliss.

Personal Example:

I am typically a very calm and relaxed person, particularly when I drive. I tend not to get upset, even if someone is driving poorly.

My wife and I were driving home just a few days ago, and there was a merge from the highway.  Within a block or two of the merge, one could, if one wanted to be an ass, cross four lanes of traffic and make a left at the light.

I was cresting the hill over the overpass of the highway when I saw in the distance a rented U-Haul truck do just that – cut across four lanes to make a left.  As I approached, another car exited and tried to cut across as well, causing me to brake very hard.  Instead of letting the woman go, I became aggressive, and kept honking and moving forward to block her path across the road.

I had become annoyed.  A moment later, my wife turned calmly to me and said, “Well, as the founder of ARM, that didn’t seem very kind or calm.”  And, as she most often is, she was right.

In unwinding what had happened, it dawned on me that the woman (who was clearly frightened and upset as I passed her) was likely following the moving van and was nervous about getting lost.

I failed both the Preponderance of Kindness test and the use of Hanlon’s Razor.  Instead of assuming malice on her part, I should have assumed something different: that perhaps she was following the truck, didn’t have GPS, or that she was on her way to a sick friend’s house.

I had the opportunity to let her go in front of me, thus reducing her stress, my stress and my wife’s stress. Instead, I made the world just a little bit more harsh by being an ass.

I hope it’s clear how I failed in this regard, and how I could have done better.

your assumptions don’t need to be accurate!

One final note about Hanlon’s Razor (because I’m being told my blogs are too long) is that your assumption of another’s ignorance does not need to be true! Sticking with the road rage example, it’s fine to simply pretend that something else is going on and give the bad driver the benefit of the doubt: imagine they’re on the way to the hospital, they found out someone is ill, they have to go to the bathroom really, really bad, etc.

Philosophically, Hanlon’s Razor is a heuristic: it is an ARM tool which allows one to learn something about themselves.

The story or reason for their poor or questionable behavior does not need to be true – it only needs to help you find a place of calm, from which you are able to lead a better, more bliss-filled life and, if need be, respond to a challenge from a calm and strategic place rather than one of anger. It is nearly impossible to make good decisions from a place of anger.


Think back to a situation where you had become angry, hurt, or disappointed, and where Hanlon’s Razor might have helped.

Some conversation starters:

Is it important to be kind, in general, and in particular, in the face of a challenge?

What are the pros and cons of using Hanlon’s Razor to give someone the benefit of the doubt? 

Does it matter if the “ignorance” you attribute to the other person is true or not?

These blogs are 100% for your benefit.  Please shoot me an email or share your comments below. Let’s make this a dialogue so we can work together to make the world just a little bit better one decision at a time.

And be sure to stay tuned for next week’s fifth and final part of our five-part series on How We Do Hard.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. My wife and I are raising our 12 year old grandson and as far as 12-year olds go, he is sloppy, forgetful, and addicted to his phone, electronic games, etc. My wife is getting increasingly impatient with him and gets extremely angry for the least little infraction. I can’t seem to get her to realize that her actions are only making the situation worse. We have been married 40 years now and she is retired and I am not, so she has the most important role with him. How do I get her to control her anger, which is not good for her health, mine or our grandson.

  2. Hi Larry,

    First, thank you very much for taking the time to share. That’s a tough situation, and not uncommon. My wife struggled more so with our three daughters at various times, particularly with what you’ve described. In fact, one daughter routinely left her socks in the kitchen. Every day. While I found it endearing, and recognized that one day we would miss seeing her socks around the house (which has come to pass now that they are adults and no longer home), my wife struggled. To keep the peace, I opted to toss her socks into the laundry while encouraging my daughter to try to remember. A fundamental principle of The Alternative Response Method is to be of service. This was an exceptionally small price for me to pay.

    Some tools and concepts for your consideration.

    First, we must learn to modify (I hesitate to say lower) our expectations of others if they are not coachable, or, have difficulty modifying their behavior. This is called capacity. Your grandson is simply “at capacity,” meaning, he currently can do no better. Whether he can, or cannot, do better doesn’t matter. This is a tool for your wife to use to be more calm in managing her expectations of him.

    Another tool is visualization. Imagine if he were, perhaps, ill. Or no longer living with you both. Try to find a way to appreciate some of the characteristics he brings to your home.

    Lastly, consider strategy. I find this sort of thing challenging. What can you both do strategically to get him to modify some, if not all, of his behavior. For example, instead of asking him to clean up his room, say, can you spend 10-minutes cleaning up your room (or whatever task you wish).

    There’s more, and I’d be happy to chat if you’re interested.

    Thanks again and hang in there!



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