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 your 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 its 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. But if you lean into their crazy, you’ll radically change the dynamic.
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.
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’t 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, I turned him from an assailant into an ally in less than a minute.
Luckily, my response came naturally, even on that really bad day. That’s because I’ve been leaning into people’s crazy for years as a psychiatrist. I’ve done it thousands of times, in different ways, and I know that it works.
Moreover, I know that it can work for you. Leaning into crazy is a strategy you can use with any irrational person. For instance, you can use this strategy to talk with:
- A partner who screams at you—or refuses to speak to you
- A child who says, “I hate you” or “I hate myself”
- An aging parent who says, “You don’t care about me”
- An employee who constantly melts down on the job
- A manager who’s a bully
No matter what kind of everyday crazy you’re dealing with, leaning into that crazy can empower you to break free from communication strategies that fail every time and break through to the people you need to reach. As a result, you’ll be able to walk into just about any emotional situation—anywhere—and feel confident, in control, and unafraid.