Category Archives: Rationality

The Challenge of Separating Emotional and Intellectual Agreeableness

There is a decent amount of research showing that agreeableness (as measured by the five factor personality test) is not always associated with strong professional outcomes.

Specifically, agreeableness can reduce results orientation and create opportunities to be taken advantage of by colleagues who better use power to achieve their desired ends.

That being said, agreeableness need not be all bad: to the extent that it helps cultivate large, loose networks, agreeableness is likely of use to leaders in attracting talent and coalition members, especially in the non-profit sector.


Many times, I’ll be in a conversation with a colleague, grantee, or potential grantee and there will be a small war going on my head: part of me wants to nod my head, smile, and ask probing but pleasant questions – while another party of me wants to dig in very hard on everything that might be wrong about what we’re discussing.

I have a strong desire to be both emotionally agreeable and intellectually disagreeable.

Which begs the question: is it possible to be emotionally agreeable while being intellectually disagreeable?


I’m not sure. But here’s some things I try to do:

  • Utilize processes that create a safe space for intellectual aggression (i.e., assigning someone to be the devil’s advocate in a meeting).
  • Using hedging phrases such as “I might have this wrong, but….” that soften the blows of intellectual aggression.
  • Trying to separate my empathy for a person with my disagreement with her ideas – so that my intellectual disagreeableness does not bleed into full blown personal animosity.

If you have any other tools, let me know.

I struggle to get the balance right.

Sometimes I feel like I’m too agreeable, and sometimes I feel like I’m too intellectually aggressive.

5 Great Pieces of Advice on How to be Better


So much of being more effective has to do with being more rational, in the literal sense of the world.

Being rational is very hard to do. Cognitive biases and emotional walls abound.

CFAR, the Center for Applied Rationality, has a solid checklist that can be used to get better.

Some of their recommendations, as well as my thoughts, below.

1) Dealing with Cognitive Pain

Cognitive pain is caused by thoughts that hurt. Thoughts could hurt because a colleague is disagrees with a strong belief of yours; you realize a relationship is not what you though it was; you realize your career is not where you want it – or any of a variety of other painful thoughts.

CFAR has good advice on the mindsets required to deal with cognitive pain:

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2) Fighting to Keep Your Mind Open

It is very, very difficult to explore all potential options and evaluate them without prejudice.

CFAR points to some key issues:

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3) Moving From Arguing to Testing

In so many cases, we don’t know enough to come to conclusions. Rather than debate, we must test:

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4) Quantifying Over Time 

One of my favorite hacks is the 10/10/10 rule: consider how something will make you feel in ten days, ten months, and ten years.

CFAR expands on this:

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5) Admitting Environment Matters

When you’re trying to change, you can’t just say: tomorrow it will be different. You need to reconstruct you environment to bring about the change.

CFAR explains:

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In Sum 

The road to be our best selves, of course, runs straight through our minds.

If we can make our minds better, we can better.

Personally, I’m focusing on facing cognitive pain whenever it occurs.

While difficult to do, to date it has made my life better.