Mark didn’t mean to cut the guy off. The man in the pickup truck honked repeatedly. Mark nodded at him: Sorry. But a few minutes later Mark accidentally cut the guy off again. And that’s when things went sideways…
The man raced his truck forward and blocked Mark’s car. With both vehicles now stopped, the guy got out. All six-foot-five and three hundred pounds of him. (If I was Mark I would have considered calling ahead to reserve one of the nicer rooms in the ICU.)
The guy started banging his fist on Mark’s door. Bellowing at him with rage. Inexplicably, Mark rolled down his window:
“Have you ever had such an awful day that you’re just hoping to meet someone who will pull out a gun, shoot you, and put you out of your misery? Are you that someone?”
The man’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Yeah, I really mean it. I don’t usually cut people off, and I never cut someone off twice. I’m just having a day where no matter what I do or who I meet—including you!—I seem to mess everything up. Are you the person who is going to mercifully put an end to it?”
The man’s demeanor changed instantly. He became calm. Reassuring.
“Hey. C’mon, man. It’ll be okay. Really! Just relax, it’ll be okay. Everyone has days like this.”
They talked for a while. Nicely. The guy got back into his truck. He waved to Mark in the rearview mirror. And drove off.
This guy was ready to murder Mark – and yet seconds later he was reassuring him. Helping him. Now you can argue Mark misled him. Mark wasn’t suicidal. But the point is he de-escalated the situation and they both got, ultimately, what they wanted. Mark didn’t want to die, and that guy didn’t want to go to prison over a traffic incident.
The big takeaway is Mark didn’t fall prey to the mistakes we usually make when other people lose their cool. He didn’t argue or even try to reason with the guy. And he didn’t say, “Calm down! You’re overreacting!” – a phrase with a success rate that continues to hover around zero.
Instead, Mark leaned in to the man’s perspective. He did nothing to dispute how the guy saw the current situation.
We think that people with a head full of steam are unpredictable. But that’s not true. They very predictably escalate things when we tell them their perspective is wrong. Resistance can be, as they say, “futile.” At least initially.
When we lean in to an irrational person’s reality – when we accept that in their mind their response is reasonable – we can guide them back to sanity.
Now this isn’t the best angle to take when you’re dealing with someone who has a serious personality disorder or someone who is selfishly trying to manipulate you. But with your average person who is just having a bad moment, this can be the best approach. It can help you resolve heated disputes with romantic partners, kids, and co-workers.
What does Mark Goulston do? He’s a psychiatrist. You know: the equivalent of human tech support. In the past, one of his patients stalked Britney Spears and another was arrested in the Dominican Republic for single-handedly trying to lead a revolution. He has dealt with levels of irrational behavior over the years that you and I will (hopefully) never have to. And he has a few powerful lessons to teach us. His book is “Talking to ‘Crazy’: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life.”
Let’s get to it…
When you’re dealing with someone who is behaving irrationally, you can’t always make things better. But you can absolutely make things worse. So the first step is to keep yourself under control. Otherwise, now there are two irrational people screaming and that isn’t good for anyone. (Okay, it can be very entertaining for bystanders but it sure isn’t good for you.)
Now is the time to be one of those cool-under-pressure people. As soon as someone starts losing it, see this as an “opportunity for poise.” Think of their venting as a high colonic: it’s something that’s done when people desperately need to get something out.
Internally, label your emotions. “I’m feeling angry.” Research shows this will help keep your emotions under control. Then think of a calm, cool role model. Someone you know or someone on TV you’d like to emulate who doesn’t get flustered.
As the person in front of you rants and raves, you need to focus on their left eye. You have to do this very deliberately – mightily focus all your attention on their left eye. Got that?
No, there’s not any powerful research showing this will do anything magical. But if you’re focused on their left eye, you’re paying less attention to their ranting and will be less bothered by it.
(To learn about how to improve your relationships, check out my new bestselling book here.)
However, keeping your cool gets much harder when someone you care about is saying extreme things. Words that feel like they’re pressing the lit end of a cigarette against your eardrum.
What do you do then?
They’re hurling accusations at you that would only be appropriate in a war crimes tribunal. (Frankly, it’s impressive how much long-simmering resentment they can smoosh into one rant.)
“I hate you!”
“I should fire you!”
“I want a divorce!”
Now if you’re one of those extraordinarily rare people who actually thinks before they speak you might mistakenly believe that other people do this too. Rarely a good assumption, especially when people are overwhelmed by emotion.
In all likelihood, they don’t want you to take them literally and you don’t want to take them literally either. If this is someone you’re close to, it’s probably not hate they’re feeling – it’s disappointment. So reply: “Obviously, you’re really angry at me. Tell me: Do you hate me, or are you just incredibly disappointed in me for doing X (or failing to do X)?”
This will often de-escalate things. If they agree, say: “What one thing have I done or failed to do that has most disappointed you since we’ve known each other?”
Then apologize. Yes, this can feel unfair. You’re not the one yelling and screaming. But often, there is some validity to their accusation, at least from their perspective. Problems in a relationship are usually two-sided to some degree. So you’re probably not 100% blameless. Apologize for your part (even if it’s just 2%.) You don’t have to utterly fall on your sword – you just have to go first.
Frankly, this alone might calm things down and get you talking constructively…
Or it might not. And for that we have a much more powerful option…
This is extreme and may feel uncomfortable. But it’s incredibly effective for restoring calm to an out-of-control argument and, if executed properly, will make both of your IQ’s return to normal.
No, not some lame “Sorry.” Go into detail. Be specific and thoughtful with your apology. This isn’t a sentence; it’s a paragraph. Or multiple paragraphs.
Maybe you don’t feel an apology is justified but pushing back is not going to help (as the previous few decades of your life have painfully taught you). At least initially, lean in and meet them where they’re at.
You can certainly find something honestly worth apologizing for. We’ve ruled out that this person has a serious personality disorder or is a callous manipulator – so this isn’t someone immorally throwing a tantrum to gain advantage. This is a good person who is having a bad day. Lean in and get them to a place where you can have a sane conversation.
And apologizing is an incredibly powerful way to start. Why? Because people almost never do it. Apologies are fabric softeners for the soul. It’s really hard for things to escalate when someone starts by sincerely apologizing.
Describe, in detail, how difficult this must be — from their perspective. You don’t have to lie. You’re not discussing the facts. You’re describing how they must feel – even if it’s not reasonable.
It doesn’t matter if what you say isn’t exactly how they’re feeling. You’re not a mind reader. It’s the empathy that matters — that you even bothered to think deeply about their feelings.
Again, nobody does this so it will often have a profound effect. If they’re quiet, it’s likely because they’re surprised and taking it in.
This is the really hard part. List the darkest, most ugly thoughts they might be having about you. The ones they might be terribly ashamed of. Don’t be afraid to get extreme. You’re unloading the guilt from them. They won’t say it — so you will.
“You probably hate me. You wish you never married me. Sometimes you probably hope I would just die.”
It is really hard to stay angry at someone who sincerely apologizes, offers a heaping dose of empathy and lets your dark thoughts out in the open. It’s rare that anyone has thought this much about your side of things – and feels guilty.
They’ll probably calm down, backpedal and downplay what you said: “I don’t hate you, it’s just that…”
This is good. You can almost certainly have a reasonable conversation at this point…
Problem is, there’s a decent chance one of you will step in it again. You’ve seen this happen. You feel like you’re making progress and then somehow you circle back to shouting again. The calm wasn’t the end of the story — it was just the end of Act One.
So how do you prevent things from ramping back up? And make future arguments less likely?
All too often arguments go in circles. It doesn’t end when it’s resolved; it ends when you both get tired. Act One turns into Act Two – and eventually spawns a movie trilogy.
The solution? Stop dwelling on the past and turn the focus to the future. Say: “I can tell that I’m doing or failing to do a lot of things, and this has upset you for a long time. Going forward, what would you like me to do differently?”
This can break the samsara of arguments and get you closer to relationship enlightenment.
If your partner says, “I need you to listen to me when I’m mad instead of blowing me off,” agree to do that.
Here’s how you make sure this kind of meltdown doesn’t happen again – or at least next time it’s a 4 on the Richter Scale and not a 10. Say: “Can I ask a favor? You don’t need to agree to it, but I hope you will. Going forward, could you let me know what you need me to do, or not do —and tell me in a loving way so I won’t feel like I’m under attack?”
By handling things this way, you address their issue, you don’t get stuck in the past, and best of all you create better defaults for the future. There’s a plan, a process, a contract – and one they agreed to. It’s a diplomatic way to prevent future outbursts and bad behavior.
Now every dispute will be a step forward, creating new boundaries to prevent argument Armageddon. When you focus on the future, the future gets brighter.
Okay, time to round it all up – and we’ll address that topic we avoided earlier: dealing with manipulators…
This is how to deal with irrational people:
The above tips aren’t very useful with people who have serious personality disorders. The answer there is to exit stage right, preferably last Tuesday. But what about with manipulators? This is likely to happen at work. If it’s happening in your personal life, again, run.
First off, no, they are not going to spontaneously grow a soul. Forget that. They’re going to try every trick to get what they want and then creep off into the darkness where they will cackle like a Disney villain while drinking from a skull.
If the manipulator directly asked you for something, it’s simple: say “no.” And that’s why they usually don’t do that. They try to turn their problems into your problems. They want you to offer to help. This way there is less resistance for them. Also, technically, they don’t have to feel like they owe you anything – you offered, right?
For lower-level Sith, you can just say, “I’d be happy to help you with that. And here’s what you can do for me.” With Vader-level Sith this won’t work. They won’t follow through and you’ll have to follow up, further enmeshing you in their endless web of nonsense.
First thing: don’t get angry or defensive when it’s obvious they’re trying to manipulate you. They’ll call you paranoid or use your negativity to justify guilting you.
The key point is this: leave their problems as their problems. Never accept the responsibility they’re trying to foist on you.
So they’re ranting about their problems, wanting you to offer to help. And you should reply: “Okay, I understand. Now what?” Obliviousness is a superpower.
They’ll keep trying. Respond with: “That seems like a lot to deal with. You should probably get started sooner rather than later. What’s your first step?”
Don’t accept responsibility. They didn’t ask, so you don’t need to be involved. If they keep trying say, “Gotta go. Let me know how that turns out for you.”
The vampire cannot enter if you don’t invite them in.
But most folks you have arguments with aren’t manipulators – they’re good people having a bad day. And if you keep that in mind, you’ll do much better.
Albert Einstein once said, “The most important decision you will ever make is whether you live in a safe or a dangerous world.” If you don’t see the other person as a threat – just as a good human having a bad day — you can stay compassionate despite them losing their cool.