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Idiopathic Mutual Irritation

Have you ever found someone to be really irritating, for example a co-worker, boss, or neighbor – but that person says that you’re the problem? What’s more, they won’t leave you alone, and you have a hard time leaving him or her alone, too. But both of you get along with everyone else, and there’s no obvious reason why the two of you shouldn’t get along as well. 

What is Idiopathic Mutual Irritation?

After I’d worked on several different mediations where the parties didn’t get along without an obvious reason why, I gave the phenomenon a name: Idiopathic Mutual Irritation, or IMI. The “idiopathic” part means something that happens without a known cause.

I’ve seen IMI many times: two reasonable, professional people who work well with everyone else, don’t work well with each other. I’ve experienced it myself, and probably you have, too.

As for what it is, you’ve probably heard of what’s called “chemistry” in actors. It’s where two actors have a special connection, a spark, that they may not have with other actors. Think Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon movies, or Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in The Silver Linings Playbook. IMI is a kind of reverse or negative chemistry.

What causes Idiopathic Mutual Irritation?

It’s hard to tell what causes IMI. When it comes to interpersonal interaction more generally, whether positive or negative, the most frequently studied factors are: physical attractiveness, propinquity (physical or psychological proximity), familiarity, similarity, complementarity, reciprocal liking, and reinforcement (Bryne, Donn and Griffitt, William. (February 1973) “Interpersonal Attraction”, Annual Review of Psychology. pg 316-336, Folkes, V. S. (1982). Forming relationships and the matching hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 631-636, Luo, Shanhong; Guangjian Zhang (August 2009). “What Leads to Romantic Attraction: Similarity, Reciprocity, Security, or Beauty? Evidence From a Speed-Dating Study”. Journal of Personality 77 (4): 933–964).

With IMI, you’d expect the negatives of those: physical repulsiveness, having few interactions, unfamiliarity, dissimilarity, being too similar, reciprocal disliking, and negative reinforcement.

In my observations, physical attractiveness or lack thereof has nothing to do with chemistry as I’m talking about it here. A few years back, I trained and worked as an actor, and in my experience physical attractiveness and chemistry aren’t correlated (physical attractiveness may be positively correlated with external assessments of chemistry, but that’s a different issue).

As for having few interactions, people who experience IMI have had few interactions, but not every pair of people who has few interactions experiences IMI. Same with unfamiliarity and dissimilarity. Negative reinforcement may not cause IMI, but certainly perpetuates it.

That leaves reciprocal disliking as a cause of IMI. But that begs the question of what causes reciprocal disliking.

There are certain chemicals present in the human body when people feel attraction, such as oxytocin. However, increases in oxytocin are also correlated with increased envy and Schadenfreude, as well as ingroup-favoritism and aggression towards out-group members (“Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Paul Zak,, “The other side of the coin: oxytocin decreases the adherence to fairness norms,” Sina Radke and Ellen R.A. deBruijn, http://www.ncbi.nlm.).

In other words, it may not be possible to know what causes IMI. But it’s a commonly reported phenomenon, so clearly people experience it.

What can you do about it?

If you and a coworker – or you and anybody – experience IMI, there are tactics you can use to alleviate it, if not eliminate it altogether. Here are some tactics that my clients have used that helped them.

1) Identify the problem

Often, when I tell a mediation client about IMI, and ask if they think they and the other party might suffer from it, that’s enough to alleviate the problem. When people realize that the problem is real, they’re more likely to realize that the other person is reasonable and sensible, and to recognize when the other person is willing to resolve the dispute.

You can tell the other person about IMI, and suggest to them that the problems you’re having are simply due to that. Show them this article if they don’t believe you.

2) Be prepared for what irritates you

If just acknowledging IMI doesn’t alleviate it for you, then try making a list of the behaviors in the other person that irritate you. Then prepare some responses you can make to minimize your irritation and avoid irritating the other person in return (not that you’re responsible for their being irritated, but the les irritated they are, the better for you). Here are some responses to my clients find helpful

a) Breathe

Breathe. As deeply as you can. The physiological reasons why this works woul have to be the subject of another article, but it does work. Decide on a number of deep breaths you’ll take before you respond. Three deep breaths aren’t too many, even five or seven.

b) Use visualization

Yes, I know visualization is woo-woo, but there’s plenty of scientific literature on visualization that shows that it’s effective (“Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention.” Yvo M.C. Meevissen, Madelon L. Peters, Hugo J.E.M., J. Behav. Ther. & Exp. Psychiat. 42 (2011) 371-378, “Imagery and implementation intention: A randomised controlled trial of interventions to increase exercise behaviour in the general population.” E.K. Andersson, T.P. Moss. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 12 (2011) 63e70.)

You could visualize yourself as something strong or impervious, such as a building, your favorite superhero, or a natural feature such as a mountain. Given where I live – Seattle, Washington –, I visualize myself as Mt. Rainier: massive, calm, and having a broadly supporting base.

You could also visualize the other person as something small or harmless. I visualize the other person as a squirrel, harmlessly chattering and scolding in the foothills of me-as-Mt.-Rainier.

c) Give a bland reply 

Give some bland reply that really doesn’t say anything. For example, ““That’s interesting,” or “You may be right.” The other person will be expecting something irritating or angry. A bland non-reply will leave them not sure what to say in response, and that will lessen your irritation.

3) Avoid the other person

If you can, minimize your contact with the other person. Find a new path through the cubicles, sit as far away from the person as you can during meetings, and at social events or other large gatherings, find other people that – darn – you just have to talk to.

Idiopathic Mutual Irritation can be alleviated

Idiopathic mutual irritation is, well, irritating. Experiencing it detracts from your satisfaction with your work, and your enjoyment of your coworkers and even of your life.

You can alleviate IMI. Identify the problem, be prepared for the irritants, and if necessary avoid the person. Who knows, that “negative chemistry” might change to positive, and you and the other person develop a productive, satisfying, and even enjoyable relationship.



Louise Penberthy

Louise Penberthy is a mediator, coach, and trainer. Over her 14 years of experience, she's mediated a wide variety of cases, but specializes in mediating with programmers, software developers, engineers, and other technically and logically minded people and organizations.  As a white woman with significant experience in a community of… MORE >

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