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Do you often deal with bullies, manipulators, know-it-alls and other types of "crazy" in your professional life? If you reason with irrational people, it often backfires. There are, however, other ways to get across.

In Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life, Dr. Mark Goulston, a seasoned psychiatrist who coaches Fortune 500 CEOs and managers in conflict resolution, gives proven techniques to handle difficult colleagues, remain calm under any circumstances and always get your work done.

Top 20 insights

  1. It can be counterproductive to avoid difficult conversations with irrational people. Research by VitalSmarts shows that employees waste roughly $1500 and one eight hour workday every time they avoid a crucial conversation. Further, it merely reinforces irrational behavior.
  2. Most people try to reason with irrational people in the hope that they will snap out of it. This doesn't work. Irrational thoughts and behavior stem from a misalignment of the brain that makes people unable to respond to facts or logic.
  3. When someone acts difficult, use the "Sanity Cycle" to prevent your descent into a flight-or-fright mode. Recognize that the person can't reason, then identify their Modus Operandi and realize their behavior isn't about you. Listen calmly and mirror their emotions. Then gently guide them toward more positive thoughts.
  4. Humans have three brains: the lower reptilian brain responsible for instinctual responses, the paleomammalian brain responsible for emotions and the neomammalian brain that supports logical thoughts and makes decisions. In healthy adults, the three brains work in sync, and the neomammalian brain dominates.
  5. "Triunal Agility" is the ability to realign the three brains to respond to circumstances dynamically. It makes a person adaptive and resilient. In contrast, "Triunal Rigidity" makes a person unable to respond to changed circumstances. It causes their brains to become misaligned and results in chronic irrational behavior.
  6. Irrational people are afraid to lose control. That's why they resort to the Modus Operandi of constant complaints, verbal attacks, sarcasm or meltdowns as weapons to trigger a fight-or-flight response. To be prepared, determine an irrational person's particular Modus Operandi prior to the conversation.
  7. Before you engage, ask yourself if this is worth it. Evaluate the relationship to see if you have done more than your fair share of emotional support and help. Remember, "you cannot change the people around you, but you can change the people you choose to be around."
  8. If you decide to walk away from an irrational person, follow this three-step method to avoid messiness. First, convince yourself that it isn't your responsibility to manage their problems. Second, don't say anything that can be used against you. Finally, close all opportunities for re-engagement.
  9. A simple way to identify people with personality disorders in interviews is to ask them what has frustrated, upset or disappointed them most in life. If they don't take responsibility and only blame others or circumstances, it might be best to avoid the hire.
  10. It's important to come to terms with your own foibles before the confrontation with an irrational person. Write down critical events in your life, identity how you felt and the beliefs you formed about yourself and others. Examine if these beliefs limit your responses today and see if different beliefs would serve you better in the future.
  11. When you confront an irrational person, they will escalate and attack. This can make your reptilian brain take control which leads to stress and irrational behavior. The irrational person will win because irrational people are comfortable with their reptile brain in charge. Instead, remind yourself that this is an opportunity for poise until the logical brain regains control.
  12. An irrational person feels cornered and acts out more when you try to dominate the conversation. Put the irrational person in charge and ask them to come up with a solution to your problem. This instantly shifts your status in their eyes from a potential threat to a "pack member" they must take care of.
  13. "Time Travel" is an effective technique to stop repeated irrational workplace behavior. Peacefully discuss how they would like this interaction to proceed the next time, list your expectations and agree. Next time, remind them of the agreement and follow through.
  14. Most normal people who experience an irrational episode have a part of them that is still "sane." Listen as they vent, ask what you can do to help and gently guide them back to normalcy.
  15. "Splitters" try to create discord between two people because they can't handle rejection. If a "splitter" tries to manipulate your opinion of a colleague, calmly express your doubt to agitate the manipulator. Then, arrange a meeting for the parties involved to clear things up. When the "splitter" surrenders, be empathetic and help them deal with the rejection.
  16. If a colleague suffers from irrational fear, don't dismiss it. Recognize that to this person, the fear is genuine. Jointly analyze various possible scenarios to help the colleague's logical brains regain control and make it clear that things are not so bad after all.
  17. If you have to handle a colleague who behaves like a know-it-all, compliment them on things they are genuinely good at. This will confuse and disarm them. Leverage this to make your point.
  18. Colleagues who fear rejection will refuse to reach out and act as if they have things under control. These "martyrs" harm the team because they don't ask for help until it's too late. A simple way to handle them is to recognize their efforts and gently order them to ask for help when needed.
  19. Manipulators try to make you solve their problems through constant complaints. No matter how many times you help, they will always come back with another problem. Listen patiently, but clearly state that you can't help. Don't talk to them until they reach out to apologize.
  20. Use the "Seventy Two Hour Rule" if you suffer a meltdown after a bad conversation with an irrational person. Promise yourself that you will take no action that may make the situation worse for the next three days. When you have regained calm, try again.


We all know at least one irrational person and many would give anything to avoid certain colleagues because they drive us up the wall. Regardless of how hard we try to reason with them, we fail and feel helpless. Goulston, however, gives us hope as he shares valuable advice for situations when the most unresponsive group–the flat-out irrational folk–needs to be addressed. The key takeaway from this book is that in order to handle irrational people, one must "lean into their crazy" and feel compassion.

The sanity cycle

The way to handle crazy people is to lean in and meet them in their reality. This isn't easy because our brains instinctively move into a flight, fight or freeze mode. None of these responses help if the person is a part of your professional life. The "Sanity Cycle" helps to overcome this instinct and lean in.

  • Step 1: Recognize that the other person can't think rationally and can't be reasoned with. Their behavior has roots in the past rather than the present moment.
  • Step 2: Identify the person's Modus Operandi, the specific strategy they use to make you feel guilty, ashamed, afraid or frustrated. This makes you calmer, centered and more in control.
  • Step 3: Realize that crazy behavior isn't about you but is about the other person. Use mental techniques to retain balance.
  • Step 4: Lean in and empathize by imagining yourself undergoing the person's emotions of feeling attacked, misunderstood or defensive.
  • Step 5: Make yourself an ally and not a threat by calmly listening to the person. Allow them to vent and take their side. Listen kindly and mirror the person to make the other person mirror you.
  • Step 6: Guide the person to saner ways of thinking.

The science behind craziness

Irrationality isn't something you can talk people out of as it does not respond to facts or logic. It's not that people refuse to change. The truth is they can't change. Crazy behavior emerges from a misalignment of the brain that makes it unable to respond to reason.

The Three Brains

The human mind uses three interconnected brains to function. While they usually work together, under stress, they disconnect from each other and realign in ways that make people irrational. The three brains and their functions are:

  • The Reptilian Lower Brain is the innermost primitive lower brain that focuses on survival issues. These include food, sleep, sex, fight-or-flight response.
  • The Paleomammalian Middle Brain processes emotions like joy, hate, sadness and pleasure. It is responsible for emotional bonds with parents, partners or children.
  • The Neomammalian Upper Brain is the outer part that is highly evolved and allows you to look at a situation objectively, make smart decisions, plan ahead and control impulses.

When well aligned, the three brains synchronize instincts, emotions and logical thought processes with the neomammalian brain usually in charge most of the time. "Triunal Agility" is the ability to effectively change one's approach by dynamically realigning the three brains as required. This makes the person adaptive and resilient to dynamic shifts in circumstances.

In contrast, difficult early childhood experiences can make people's brains get locked in "Triunal Rigidity." The more their brains misalign with reality, the more they feel desperate and double-down on their irrationality. The only way to engage with them is to enter their world and make a case.

Identify modus operandi

Irrational people are afraid to lose control. To prevent this, they resort to different Modus Operandi like attacking wildly, crying, withdrawing, being sarcastic or whining to force you to either meltdown or escape. Identifying Modus Operandi gives considerable power over the other person and makes you confident to lean in. Therefore, it's essential to do this before talking to a "crazy" person.

When to talk and when to walk away

Before a conversation, it's important to ask if there is a good reason to engage. Sometimes, it may be better to avoid talking to an irrational person than to waste time trying to get through. If you decide to walk away, the DNR method helps. The three steps are:

  • Don't React – Don't make their problem your responsibility. Convince yourself that it's their problem and their responsibility to manage it.
  • Don't Respond – Don't say anything that the other person could use to make it your fault or responsibility.
  • Don't Resuscitate – Don't give opportunities for the person to re-engage.
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Stay clear of personality disorders

While run-of-the-mill irrationality can be handled using the techniques outlined in this book, it's essential to stay clear of people with severe personality disorders. Here's a simple way to identify if a person has a personality disorder in a job interview:

  • Ask them what has frustrated, upset or disappointed them in the recent past.
  • Notice where they place the blame for their problems. If there is a clear pattern of blaming others instead of taking responsibility, the candidate may not be a person you wish to hire.

Handle your own crazy

Everyone has their pet irrationalities that arise from their childhood that influence how they engage with people. To manage these irrationalities, write down key events in your life from childhood. For each of them, identify your feelings about the incident, who you looked to for support and the beliefs you formed about yourself and others. Examine if these beliefs limit how you live today and prime your responses. Examine if a new response or a different belief would serve you better in the future. To change the way you perceive the world, identify the negative qualities in people that bother you most and act as if they exhibited the opposite positive qualities. For example, if you tend to think that most people are unreliable, think of them as reliable. As a result, those you misperceived will respond to this new behavior with gratitude and warmth.

Don't fight back

Usually, when a crazy person is confronted, they go on the offensive and stress you out. If this happens, the irrational person will always win, and you will lose. Use these three methods to stay sane when crazy attacks you.

Reframe Attack as an Opportunity

When an irrational person attacks, pause and remind yourself that this is an opportunity for poise until the upper brain regains control.

Picture your Mentors

When things escalate, take a deep breath and remember your mentors who you look up to. Feel grateful and think about what they would ask you to do. Gratitude defuses anger, and even when the brain can't think logically, it can at least recall sane advice from mentors.

The Eight Step Pause

  1. Physical Awareness – Identify the physical sensations you are experiencing like tension in your head.
  2. Emotional Awareness – Attach emotions to each physical sensation like anger.
  3. Impulse Awareness – Verbalize what the feeling makes you want to do.
  4. Consequence Awareness – Remind yourself of the consequences of following the impulse.
  5. Insight Awareness – Understand what makes you take this confrontation personally.
  6. Solution Awareness – Come up with a better solution than the impulsive one.
  7. Benefit Awareness – Remind yourself of the various benefits of your new solution.
  8. Let's Go – Commit to the action.
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Tactics to talk to crazy

1. Assertive Submission

Trying to dominate a situation brings out the worst in irrational people as they feel cornered. Instead, admit weakness and put the irrational person in charge by asking them to help you out. Suddenly, you are not a threat but a member of their "pack" whom they have a responsibility to protect as a pack leader.

Be a Mentor, Not a Bully

Brian, a senior software developer who had developed many flagship products, had difficulty dealing with many younger colleagues. He saw them as kids, and they felt he was outdated. This led to angry, emotionally volatile conflicts in meetings. On Goulston's suggestion, Brian made an assertive submission. He apologized for acting like a bully, put forward the concerns that mattered to him and asked the other members to help him out. Instantly, the tension in the room defused, and his colleagues came up with compromises. Eventually, his colleagues began to value Brian's vast experience, and some even looked up to him as a mentor.

2. Time Travel

This is one of the best strategies to handle challenging or abusive colleagues or clients. If you see someone playing out a repeated irrational pattern, shift focus from being obsessed about the past to creating a shared future that works for both of you. Ask the person what they specifically expect you to do better the next time. Make a note, add your conditions and come to a mutual agreement on what seems reasonable. The next time a similar situation arises, remind them of the specific suggestions that both of you agreed to and go by that script.

How to Manage Abusive Clients

Gordon and his team, who handled IT support for litigation attorneys, repeatedly found themselves verbally abused whenever minor issues arose. The lawyers were venting their work stress on the team. In a client meeting, Gordon used a variant of "Time Travel" by asking the specific way in which they would like his team to communicate issues to them going forward. He noted the attorneys' preferences and repeated them back to double-check. Later, when a server issue came up, Gordon reminded the client of their previous agreement and to his surprise, the attorneys behaved civilly.

A more potent version of the technique is to unilaterally formulate specific consequences for behavior that occurs and calmly communicate this to the other person. The key to success is being non-negotiable on the action items.

3. The Eye of the Hurricane

When a sane person has an irrational episode, let them vent and observe peacefully. Focus on their left eye to connect with their right brain. Once the venting is over, gently guide them back to normal by asking what is one thing that you could do for them to help. While you might not want to deal with high emotions in the workplace, the technique allows people to let out their pent up negativity instead of leading to drastic outcomes like quitting or acting out physically. It sets the stage for more positive outcomes.

4. Handle Splitters

"Splitters" are those who play one person against the other because they can't take rejection. When you hear a complaint, pause and ask the person why the other person refused them. If they are a "splitter," they may get agitated and accuse you. Calmly call the first person and put the call on speaker. At this point, the "splitter" will most likely give up. Be empathetic and share their concerns about feeling rejected and help the "splitter" become more resilient in the face of rejection.

5. Three "L's" to Soothe Extreme Fear

When a person suffers from extreme fear, trying to reassure them otherwise might backfire. Try the "Three L's" technique.

  • Lean In – Recognize that to the person, their fear seems reasonable.
  • Look at Reality – The person might not consider solutions, but they may be willing to examine multiple future scenarios. Examine if the scenario the person anticipates is the likely outcome or if there is a good chance that things will work out okay. Remind them of similar situations that worked out well. This will help them recover and think rationally.
  • Lead the person to a solution – Help them too think ahead. If they are stuck in a thought, it might be a good idea to get them to act or emote. If they are stuck with an action, it might be good to make them feel by talking about their family, for example, or think by asking their opinion on a workplace issue.
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6. The Butter Up

Know-it-alls try to put you down by demeaning or belittling you but are confident you can't do that to them because of their smartness. Identify areas where they are truly smart and compliment them on those skills. This disarms them because they feel you are on their side. Use this to deliver the message. To a sarcastic older know-it-all, you could say something like, "Our younger engineers can learn so much from you. Unfortunately, when you are sarcastic, they tune out and don't benefit from your knowledge. If you approach them as a mentor, they will learn from you".

7. Executive Order

Some people have a martyr obsession that makes them refuse to ask for help. This can prevent organizations from meeting targets because "martyrs" never reach out until it's too late. The best way to handle them is to gently order them to ask for help. This transforms the dynamic from asking for help to just following orders.

Encourage a Colleague to Reach Out

Dana would take on every project her boss Joel requested and never agreed to his offer to add more people to the team. When things began to slip, she glossed over the delays until Joel eventually realized she would miss two project deadlines. Joel was furious. But he gently spoke to Dana, saying that he noticed her difficulty in asking for help. He reminded her that she was hurting her productivity and the team by refusing to ask for help. Joel closed the conversation by gently ordering her to ask for help. He systematically went through with each project and made Dana list the help she needed for the projects. Every month, he would check-in by asking her what requests she had made during that period.

8. The Kiss Off for Manipulators

Manipulators want to turn their problems into yours, leaving you emotionally and sometimes even financially drained. No matter how many times you help, they come back with a new problem. To handle manipulators, let them complain. Then tell them that it could either get better, become worse or stay the same. Upset that their manipulation didn't work, the other person will vent again. Gently but firmly respond that you may not be of any assistance, wish them well and close the conversation. Don't contact them till they reach out.

When reaching out fails

Sometimes you might not succeed in reaching out to an irrational person, and feeling helpless may lead to a meltdown. Follow this five-step process to regain calm and prevent yourself from doing something regretful.

  1. The Reaction Phase - Do not deny that you are upset. Take a deep breath and use words to describe your feelings.
  2. The Release Phase - Breathe deeply and slowly through your nose with eyes closed. Slowly let the emotion go.
  3. The Recentering Phase - Repeat the first two steps while paying attention to your breath until you begin to gain balance.
  4. The Refocusing Phase - Think of what you can do to control damage and decide how to make the best of the situation.
  5. The Re-engaging Phase - Open your eyes and follow through on the decision.

This is hard to do during a meltdown because it's not instinctive to switch between the reptile brain and the logical brain. With repeated practice, you will gain control over your emotions quickly. If this drill isn't sufficient to restore calm, deploy the "Seventy-Two Hour Rule." Tell yourself that you will not do anything to make the situation worse for three days. The "Seventy-Two Hour Rule" can spare you guilt, embarrassment and shame.

Ultimately, the key to engaging with irrational people is to empathize and avoid a power struggle. Irrespective of the technique used, maintain poise and keep your logical brain in control. Identify the other person's Modus Operandi and use proven methods to transform yourself from a threat to an ally. The goal isn't to win a confrontation but to bring the person to a place where both of you can have a productive conversation and move things forward.

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