Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life

Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life

Mark Goulston

My guest this week is Dr. Mark Goulston, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and consultant. He blogs for the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company Magazine, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today. And he’s regularly featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Newsweek, and Time. He’s also the author of a number of books, including Just Listen and Get Out of Your Own Way

He joined me on my podcast last April to talk about a few fascinating hours he spent sequestered in the back room at the OJ Simpson Trial in 1994. This time he’s here to share some advice we can all probably use, which is nicely summarized in the title of his new book, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal With the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life

And by “crazy” he doesn’t necessarily mean mentally ill. He means people that have some of the following characteristics:

  • take comments too personally
  • have unrealistic expectations
  • constantly blame others before themselves
  • don’t learn from their mistakes
  • don’t listen to reason
  • think they are always right and you are always wrong
  • constantly feel like they are a victim

Sound familiar? If so, in our conversation, Dr. Goulston shares three techniques to stop the crazy (or get it out of your life).  

The first technique he calls “Leaning into the crazy.” In his book (and our conversation), he explains it this way:

Years ago, someone gave me the following advice about how to react if a dog sinks its teeth into your hand: If you give in to your instincts and try to pull your hand out, the dog will stick its teeth in deeper. But if you counterintuitively push you hand deeper into the dog’s mouth, the dog will release it. Why? Because, in order to do what it wants to do next—swallow—it has to release it’s jaw. And that’s when you can pull your hand out. 

This exact same rule applies to talking to irrational people. If you treat them as if they’re nuts and you’re not, they’ll bite down deeper on their crazy thinking. Here’s an example.

After a horrific day—one of the most frustrating in my life—I was wrapped up in my woes while driving home from work on autopilot. Unfortunately, that’s incredibly dangerous in California rush-hour traffic.

Just as I was entering the San Fernando Valley going south on Sepulveda Boulevard, I accidentally cut off a large man and his wife in a pickup truck. He honked angrily at me, and I waved to gesture I was sorry. Then, a half a mile later—idiotically—I proceeded to do it again.

At that point, the man caught up to me and pulled his truck to an abrupt stop in front of me, forcing me off the road. As I stopped, I could see the man’s wife gesturing frantically to him not to get out of the truck.

But he didn’t listen to her, and in a few moments, he did get out—all six and a half feet and 300 pounds of him. He stormed over to my car and banged wildly on my side window, screaming obscenities at me.

I was so dazed that I actually rolled my window down to hear him. Then I just waited until he paused to reload on more vitriol.

And at that moment, as he stopped to take a breath, I said to him,

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?

His mouth fell open. “What?” he asked.

Talking to Crazy

Up to that point, I’d been incredibly stupid. But in that instant, I did something brilliant. Somehow, in the midst of my brain fog, I said exactly the right thing.

I didn’t try to reason with this terrifying man, who probably would have responded by dragging me out of my car and smashing his fist into my face. And I didn’t fight back. Instead, I leaned into his crazy and threw it right back at him.

As the man stared at me, I started up again. “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?”

Instantly, a change came over him. He switched to being calming and reassuring:

Hey, C’mon, man,” he said. It’ll be okay. Really! Just relax, it’ll be okay. Everyone has days like this.”

I continued my rant, “That’s easy for you to say! You didn’t screw up everything like I did today. I don’t think it will be okay. I just want out! Can you help me with that?”

He continued with fervor: “No, really. I mean it. It’ll be okay. Just relax.”

We talked for a few more minutes. Then he got back into his truck, said a few things to his wife, and waved to me in the rearview mirror as if to say, “Now remember. Relax. It’ll be okay.” And he drove off.

Now, I’m not proud of this episode. Clearly, the guy in the pickup truck wasn’t the only irrational person on the road that day.

But here’s my point. That guy could have punched my lights out. And he probably would have if I’d tried to use reason or to argue with him. Instead, I met him in his reality, in which I was the bad guy and he had every right to hurt me. By instinctively using a technique I call assertive submission (which I’ll talk about in Chapter 9), I turned him from an assailant into an ally in less than a minute.

[Excerpt used here with permission from Amacom Books].

The other two techniques we discussed are:

Paper training your relatives for the holidays – Do you have a relative or coworker that always ruins the holiday party, but you can’t uninvite them? If so, this technique can fix it the minute they walk in the door. (You can listen to this part of the conversation at the 17:52 mark in the podcast at the top of this page).

How to get a psychopath to leave you alone – If you actually have someone terrorizing you, whether or not you have a restraining order already, here’s a technique to get them to leave you alone — forever. (You can listen to this part of the conversation at the 26:11 mark in the podcast at the top of this page).

You can get your copy of Talking to Crazy here. And you can find Dr. Goulston at and

PAS square profilePaul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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