8 Steps For Dealing With The Impossible People In Your Life

Finally! A practical way to keep from losing control with out-of-control friends, bosses and family members.  From the author of Talking to Crazy. Mark Goulston, MD Oprah.com

Confrontations with irrational people typically follow a predictable script. Unfortunately, it’s a bad script. Here’s how it goes: You decide that it’s time to confront the person. You gather your courage. And you start talking. But a few words into the conversation, the person starts seething silently or tossing grenades like these:

  • “Maybe I’ll just kill myself and make you happy.”
  • “I know you’ve always hated me. Thanks for proving it.”
  • “F#@& you.”
  • “You’re wrong.”
  • “You’ve always disappointed me.”
  • “I never want to see you again.”
Man Holding Distress Flare In Forest

Man Holding Distress Flare In Forest; Johannes Hulsch/EyeEm/Getty Images

As the person escalates this attack, you get defensive. And then you get even more defensive. And then you get angry and scared.

Before you know it, you slide from defensiveness to irrationality. You start shaking, yelling, cursing or crying. Finally, you think, “Never again,” and walk away defeated.

So, what’s the end result of your encounter? You feel humiliated, angry, sick to your stomach and frightened because you lost control. You think, “I will not put myself in a situation like that again.” If the person’s attack was vicious enough, you may even believe, “I won’t be able to survive another experience like that.”

At the same time, the irrational person thinks, “I won.” Consequently, the irrational person gets even more locked into defending her unrealistic beliefs and gets even crazier. And that means you’ve made things worse, not better.

How do you keep this bad script from playing out?

Remember: Stripping you of your poise is one of the irrational person’s best weapons, and refusing to surrender your poise is one of your best defenses. The more you keep calm (on the outside), the more she will blow up. If you feel yourself losing control, pause for a moment. If possible, say that you need to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, so you can leave the situation for a moment. Otherwise, just don’t say anything for a few minutes. Pausing causes your amygdala to simmer down, allowing you to regain control of yourself and the situation.

The most effective kind of pause has eight steps. Here’s what you need to walk through in your mind in order to keep poised and in control, despite what the irrational person is saying.

Step 1: Physical Awareness

Identify and pinpoint the physical sensations you’re feeling right now.

Complete this sentence: “Right now, I’m physically feeling _________________.”

Fill in the blank with whatever physical sensation you’re feeling (for instance, “a knot in my stomach” or “tension in my head”).

Step 2: Emotional Awareness
Attach an emotion to the physical sensation. Complete the sentence: “And now I’m feeling _________________.” Fill in the blank with the emotion you’re feeling, noting how intensely you’re feeling it (for example, “very angry”), to completely capture your emotion in words.

Step 3: Impulse Awareness
Put your impulse into words.

Complete this sentence: “This feeling makes me want to _________________.”

Fill in the blank with your immediate emotional reaction. (For example, “Tell my mother I hate her.”)

Step 4: Consequence Awareness
Give yourself a reality check before you do something you’ll regret.

Complete this sentence: “If I respond this way, what’s likely to happen is _________________.” Fill in the blank with all the possible consequences (for example, “I’ll feel better for a moment and then feel guilty or embarrassed afterward”).

Step 5: Insight Awareness
Gain insight into the situation and your own response to it.

Complete this sentence: “Now that I’m a little calmer, I can see that I might be overreacting or taking the situation too personally in this way: _________________.”

Fill in the blank, identifying any misconceptions you might have (for example, you might say, “I took what my mother said far too personally, when she was just trying to point my attention to a behavior I really do need to correct”).

Step 6: Solution Awareness
Come up with a better solution than what you were going to impulsively do.

Complete this sentence: “A better thing to do would be_________________.”

Fill in the blank with something that might work out better (for example, “to take a deep breath and agree with my mother, but tell her that I’ll react better in the future if she doesn’t use a scolding tone and I’d appreciate her trying to do that”).

Step 7: Benefit Awareness
Say to yourself what the benefit will be if you use that strategy. Complete this sentence: “If I try that better strategy, the benefits will be _________________.” Fill in the blank, listing as many benefits as possible (for example, “We won’t get into an argument, my mother will feel validated and I will feel more assertive about what I need from her”).

Step 8: “Let’s Go” Awareness
Commit to taking action.

Fill in the blank: “Now that I did the first seven steps, what I am going to do is _________________.” (For example, “try what I came up with in Step 6 and not wait for another argument to tell my mother how to give me constructive criticism in the future.”)

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Staying in control during a conversation with an irrational person — or during any life crisis — is hard, especially at first. That’s because you need to remain calm, even as you’re experiencing a nearly overwhelming urge to give in to anger or fear. But if you’re serious about successfully talking to crazy, these eight steps are game changers. So make an effort to practice them every day, especially right before you meet with an irrational person. Talking to crazy is an Olympic-level skill, and you’ll be less likely to experience defeat if you exercise beforehand and develop some serious mental muscle.
This adapted excerpt was taken from Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life, by Mark Goulston, MD.

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