Don’t Try to Reason with Unreasonable People


Are there people in your life that you try so hard to get along with, but you somehow always leave the interaction feeling disheartened, sad, angry, or demeaned? Are there people you dread running into or spending time with because there’s just something about them that strips you of your power, either provoking you into acting "crazy" (when you normally are quite a sane, nice-to-be-around person) or somehow always managing to make you give up something that’s important to your well-being?

One of my coaching clients shared with me the experience of a person she is close to. He makes little digs all the time during conversation, despite claiming to be a supportive and loving friend. Whenever she leaves an encounter, my client feels a hollow ache of "sadness and hopelessness" that lasts into the next day. After spending time with this person she’ll often explode in the car on the way home, and her boyfriend looks at her like she’s nuts. She’s not—but the unhealthy nature of the conversation (as poisoned by her "friend") is.

The art of understanding and handling the unreasonable person is probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last few years, provoked by some interpersonal and professional crises I experienced that I had originally thought were my fault. I was very fortunate to find an amazing relationship coach who has a background in psychology and unique expertise in personality disorders. She helped me to see that I was usually dealing with disordered individuals, and that I was making classic mistakes in trying to make the relationships work.

As I’m a medical doctor with some training in psychiatry, understanding that I was dealing with individuals with a bona fide personality disorder was a huge "a-ha" moment. The thing is, there might be a clear list of characteristics describing someone with borderline, antisocial or narcissistic PD in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). But when you’re dealing with one of these people, it often won’t become (diagnosably) apparent until you spend a lot of time with them. And even then, if you’re really emotionally ensnarled you might not be able to spot it on your own.

Interacting with them might just make you feel really bad about yourself, or they may say and do things that don’t sit quite right with you. Often, they have such an otherwise charming way about them that they find a way to make you laugh afterwards, or do something nice that makes you confused about "which one" is the real person. Most people will choose to focus on the good stuff and downplay the pathological, often at their peril.

A difficult person in your life might not have a full-blown personality disorder; they may just have related traits that express themselves from time to time. It still takes a toll on your self-esteem and well-being to be around them. For the purposes of this article, here’s a short list of the types of people I would lump into the "unreasonable":

* Those you can’t have a reasonable conversation with; they somehow twist your words or totally confuse you and then tell you that you’re the one who doesn’t know how to communicate

* People who make subtly or overtly demeaning comments or say cutting things to you disguised as a "joke"

* Those that don’t respect boundaries and seem to enjoy stepping all over one after you’ve placed it

* The types that aren’t willing to consider your point of view or listen to your side of things (or just stare at you blankly, or laugh, or explode, when you try to explain "how you feel")

* Bullies

* Verbal or emotional abusers (these can also range from subtle to overt)

* Manipulators

* Liars

* People who leave you feeling bad, sad, shaky or feeling sick in the pit of your stomach *

"Crazymakers," a.k.a. people who provoke you into acting crazy or unbalanced (and love making you feel like there’s something wrong with you when you do), when your behaviour across the rest of your life is proof that you’re not

* The excessively charming who are too good to be true and have an ulterior motive

You know who I mean.

Now, here are the things I’ve learned about how to handle them and minimize the damage to yourself, your days, your sanity and your life:

1) Minimize time with them

Keep your interactions as short as possible. Minimizing your exposure to pathology goes a long, long way.

2) Keep it logical

I’m a very verbal, heart-focused person, so I would always try to connect with and reason with these types (and pretty much anyone else) from an emotional or empathic perspective. You know, those "when you do X it makes me feel Y" communication tactics we’re taught in relationship books. This type of heart-centered communication only works with reasonable people who care. Unreasonable people usually don’t care, and their response (or lack of it) will often only make you more upset. Keep communications fact-based, using minimal details.

3) Don’t drink around them

Though it’s tempting to knock back a glass of wine or two when you’re around people like this, it will only make you more emotionally vulnerable and more likely to do or say something useless that will either make you look bad, make you feel bad, or make you more of a target.

4) Focus on them in conversation

A way to avoid being the target of demeaning comments, manipulation or having your words twisted is to say as little as possible. Volunteer minimal information and get them talking about themselves (if you have to be around them or talk to them, that is)—they are a far safer conversation subject than you are.

5) Give up the dream that they will one day be the person you wish they’d be

I see this in coaching clients all the time and in myself, too. There are people in our lives who have moments where they seem to be the parent/partner/spouse/friend (insert whatever’s appropriate) you’ve always felt they could be, yet they ultimately always end up hurting or disappointing us significantly. Amazingly, we fall for it and get our hopes up again the next time they treat us nicely or seem to have turned a new leaf. Giving up the hope and fully accepting this person for who they really are can be an unbelievable relief after what is sometimes a lifetime of wishing.

6) Stay away from topics that get you into trouble

Before going into an interaction with a difficult person, review in your mind the topics that invite attack and be proactive about avoiding them. For example, if your in-laws always make cracks about your choice of career, answer neutrally and change the subject immediately (see #4) if they ask you how work is going.

7) Don’t try to get them to see your point of view

Don’t try to explain yourself or try to get them to understand you and empathize with your perspective. They won’t, and you’ll just feel worse for trying.

8) Create a distraction

If you absolutely have to spend time with someone who typically upsets you, try to be around them in circumstances that offer some sort of distraction. Focus on playing with a pet if there’s one in the vicinity, have the interaction be based around some kind of recreational activity or entertainment, or offer to help in a way that takes you out of the main ring of the Coliseum (e.g. offering to chop vegetables in the kitchen before a family dinner). If you can get them to do something that absorbs their attention (taking it off you), even better.

As I mentioned to a client today, if you master these skills and manage to conduct these interactions while being civil and even friendly, you might manage to save the relationship. Not that you would necessarily want to, but in some cases if the person is a family member, boss, or some other key fixture in your life who you can’t cut out of your life, these tactics may prove to be lifesavers. They certainly have been for me!

And one more tip: research shows that praying for people who upset or anger you has positive emotional benefits for you personally, reducing your own anger and upset. Even though it may be the last thing you feel like doing, you might be surprised by the results! At the very least, you will feel better.

Is there anyone in your life who is like this? What do you find most challenging about your interactions with them? Are there ways that you’ve discovered or created that help you manage the situation? I’d love for you to share your experiences with me in the comment section below (and feel free to comment anonymously!)

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  1. anonymous says:

    Amen. Beautiful post.

  2. Anonymous says:

    All true, and all the more interesting to put into practice when you realize the unreasonable people are your parents/other family members.

  3. Marci Horton says:

    Better off realizing that THEY are the crazy ones, not you! 🙂

  4. Anon says:

    Good practical — and simple — advice which I plan to employ right away!

  5. anonymous says:

    When person like this confronts you with a ridiculous or hurtful statement or question, simply look at them incredulously and remark,”Why would you say that?”

  6. Ann says:

    Great Post!! I have been trying to deal with my (very frustrating mother) almost my entire life – so now I minimize my time with her and minimal info about my life (not that she ever asks!) Reasoning with her, or trying to let her know how I feel clearly doesn’t work, and I realize now that she will never change – therefore, I am the one who has to.

  7. Mandy says:

    The tips are aimed to create a safe distance from the “unreasonable people”, but what if the unreasonable people are the parents who are simply well-intentioned but are unreasonable or difficult to be around? I find it a difficult challenge to be loving towards the “unreasonable parents” and yet shielding myself from getting hurt.

    • Debbie says:

      I have a lifetime friend who falls into almost every category you spoke about. She is a narcissist, has a personality disorder and is constantly blowing up on others. If you don’t agree with her you are bad. She is very manipulative and somehow gets her way. We recently had an argument and i let her have it. Im not sure if that was the right way to go but i just had had enough. It involves a larger group of girls which is going to be uncomfortable going forward. Your thoughts?

  8. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    Hi Mandy, thanks for your comment and I agree, it’s very difficult when someone is a close family member, unfortunately this is quite often the case.

    I would still advise you to use these strategies as they work for anyone who is like this – minimize length of time spent with them, focus on talking about their lives, volunteer minimal personal info, don’t expect them to change, don’t go looking for their empathy or compassion or approval (if they haven’t given it before, they’re not going to start now), find a task when you’re with them such as helping set the table, chopping vegetables, whatever keeps you from having to sit face to face…this will actually decrease the probability that conflict or upset or offense will occur, making the relationship more harmonious (or as harmonious as possible anyway, sigh)
    Hope that helped!

    • Tired Daughter says:

      How do I employ these tactics when the parent is physically disabled and LIVES with you? I believe she has good intentions, but is so overly sensitive yet pushy at the same time!

      • anonymous says:

        Oh, Tired Daughter, that sounds SO HARD! I would be a shadow of my present self if I lived with my mother. I hope what I did when I lived with my mom can be helpful to you/others reading this.

        For me, SCHEDULING TIME WITH SUPPORTIVE, SANE PEOPLE was crucial. I needed to schedule 2 out, at least, so when 1 was over, I’d already know when the next one would be. Once I stopped depending on people who regularly flaked (it was too vital) it had tangible consequences.

        Even more vital is KEEPING THOSE DATES (because we all know that the unreasonable person is nearly psychic at having a crisis that requires us right at the moment we had set aside for ourselves.)

        TIME ALONE doing nothing (outside the house!) or something I love to do (preferably something immersive, that takes up all of my senses, like dance, or yoga) was as critical, and harder to stick to than dates with friends. I had to pretend it was a date with someone else for me to stick to dates with myself.

        I hope this supports you in what you’re already doing.

        • anonymous says:

          The “give up on them changing” advice had been impossible for me to follow.
          “Just smile and nod” advice from a friend, was too scary for me. Something that occurred naturally, however, I can report on:

          I wish I’d known this decades earlier… the word ‘O’.
          This might only work if/when your mom, like mine, starts a ‘conversation’ with (absurd/provocative) statements. Mine did my whole life, and I used to take the bait every which way I could. However, one time, after a lot of meditation, and with my eye on the prize as to why I was visiting (it was not about her for once, that trip was about a family member who was dying), I just said ‘O’ …not too questioning, not too inviting, not annoyed, just “taking note” — and what she said next, floored me.

          I was afraid she’d lash out at me or be offended at my lack of engagement, or changing the dynamic… but no. It was odd, but ‘O’ from me was enough engagement for her to… I won’t tell you what happened for me… just know that ‘O’ is an experiment worth trying.

        • anonymous says:

          One more share (sorry, Dr. Biali, if you want to write a book together, let me know! I realize I wasn’t the one being asked for advice, but I have positive experience to share…)

          A tool I swear by (and use for other things, too) is the No-Fault Zone

          I use it by myself, for myself. I wouldn’t recommend it as a role-playing game and definitely not for actual use with your Mom, unless you can hire Sura Hart to come over and help you apply it (she designed it for communicating with her own mother, but I’m not arguing for that, because it’s nearly impossible to include unreasonable people and the odds of success (mutual understanding) are low, unless you have a lot of emotional resources built up in advance.)

          I’m just recommending using it for self-empathy… which is way more miraculous than it sounds.

          • anonymous says:

            One last thing:
            For me, relief came when I began mourning WITH love, letting my love live on.

            Basically, if I didn’t love my mom, it wouldn’t hurt so much… but I apparently am never going to stop loving her, never going to withhold love, no matter what she did or said.

            So really, I had to MOURN, just like when someone dies, that –even though she’s still walking and talking– the mom I love isn’t “there” *for me* to enjoy/talk to/etc., just like when someone’s dead. Something like death has happened to her psyche: she can’t be present for me –she’s not even “there” for herself. It took picking a fictitious date, but finally, I began mourning, and it was so good, so needed, so healthy and right.

            Mourning inadvertently helped me to free the woman who was still there from the title ‘Mom’. I could go to archetypal Mothers (and take the role of one) for the motherly exchange we once shared, but I had to stop referring to my mother by her title. Instead, I internally started calling her by her given name. This offered me a lot of respite from resentments I hadn’t wanted to know I had been lugging around.

            I wish you and all caregiving daughters the best:
            being ‘a saint’
            can drive one insane.

  9. Jodie says:

    I needed these tips for such a long time. Thank you Dr. Susan! I am married to an alcoholic, who makes me feel crazy ever day. After 17 years I decided to make a life for myself how ever still remain in the same home. These tips will be valuable as I learn to remain calm and sane. I ordered 2 of my friends your book. They are both Doctors and they just came back from Cuba where they took up Salsa. Awesome. Love you Jodie
    P.S. I just am ready to fire some Pet Urns. I promised to send you one. Please tell me the weight and your lovely Dog’s name again.

    My web site will be up in 2 weeks at the latest. Finally..

  10. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    It’s so good to hear from you Jodie, thanks for commenting! I will send you an email : )

  11. Alex Fair says:

    Great post Dr. Biali, It reminds me of the line “when you argue with a crazy person, no one can tell which of you is the crazy one.” I can now add the addendum: “Especially you.” (meaning yourself or oneself.)

    Looking forward to meeting you next week in New York.


  12. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Dr. Biali, for this practical advice.

    My alcoholic mom, while in decline for some time, has become exceedingly irrational and paranoid in the past 6 months. She also has become exceedingly reckless and duplicitous. (I suspect she also suffers from depression and perhaps an undiagnosed personality disorder). I have felt so sad, angry, or helpless that I experienced moderate-to-severe depression myself. Since she currently refuses treatment, I recently realized that I cannot continue to spend much time with her anymore. I am learning to say “no” to her demanding and nonsensical requests. This is a change in the relationship dynamic, so it feels “wrong,” like I am rejecting her. However, I know that in order to protect my own well-being and even sanity, I must create some distance. You have offered some good strategies on how to best communicate with her those times that I do.

    • Lance says:

      Wow, I’m seeing a looot of people, like myself, having problems with their parents and other family members. I’m gonna try these tips and hope I can handle my part of the situation better. It’s too bad the people you should be able to rely on during trouble are the ones that cause you trouble in the first place. It’s funny that it mentions prayer as help. Outsiders normally aren’t more loyal than your family, and if your family causes you grief… I guess the only one you can really count on is the big guy upstairs. Too bad a physical vessel isn’t available… sure would help out a lot. *sigh* c’est la vie..

    • Diane G says:

      This sounds very much like the Hepatic Encephalopathy my alcoholic husband experienced in the end stages of cirrhosis. He began acting very strangely, irrationally, wildly fantasized and generally behaved like he’d lost his mind, which he had. You have my deepest sympathy. Watching a loved one kill him/herself with alcohol is a horror. And it was a terrible death.

  13. anonymous says:

    Wow, thank you Dr Susan – it is an eye opener . I finally have an explanation to why I feel the way I feel when with my boyfriend. Even if he says we are not together he still is around and I cannot move on. I cried when I read p. 5 – it is a story of my relationship with him. It is so hard to actually accept that he will never be that person he was only in few different situations during 10 years relationship. Now I understand that he has to move out for good and as soon as possible.
    Thank you.

  14. anonymous says:

    Thanks a lot Dr. Susan! I badly needed those tips. I recently had to deal with such an unreasonable person and I finally decided to cut him out of my life. But I hate to say the whole situation did take a toll on me and it affected my self-esteem enormously. I am trying to get over it but it seems so hard.

    Can you suggest some ways to deal with it?

    Thanks you once again.

  15. Bao says:

    Thanks! I’m a very quiet teen who has to deal with slightly deranged parents. One will explode at the smallest misstep, while the other will try to start arguments about how I’m “not trying hard enough” to get into a good college, etc. I always logically state my claims and keep a cool head, but the latter will often just say “No,” reiterate what I have just said as if it were her idea, and then continue ridiculing me even though I repeatedly say, “I’m not trying to argue with you.” It’s tough, but college comes soon so these tips will help me survive!

  16. Is it you or is it me says:

    Is it common that young people see these traits in their parents and the parents see these traits in the adult kids making it next to impossible to figure out who has the disorder.

  17. Annon says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I can’t wait to try the suggested solutions. Many Thanks.

  18. anonymous says:

    It is very refreshing to find advice other than simply cut the person out of your life move on. It’s very hard when its a family member, because to cut them off, you’d have to cut off their immediate family, plus cause a huge rift in the extended family. Thank you for this article.

  19. WOW says:

    Oh my g-d that article certainly did touch down on it both with my mom. And also with the last guy who is a charmer and has moments of being great and then returned to bad ways. He did make me crazy. I am done allowing people to treat anyway except good.
    Thank you so much

  20. Laura fisher says:

    Great article but what do you do when the person described above is your partner :cry
    I’ve got to the point where I can’t have a drink around him and I feel like I’m going crazy all the time.
    I’ve never had an argumentative relationship but I’m always being put in the dog house and made to feel like I’m crazy 🙁
    We have good times and he’s not all bad but I feel very trapped and confused by it all!

  21. Larry says:

    Dealing with a person with a persoanlity disorder always reminds me of something I read a long time ago. Its the bugs bunny, elmer fudd scenario…….bugs bunny is a fruit and nut and poor old elmer fudd is just out hunting wabbits. During thier interaction bugs continually makes elmer more and more frustrated to the point whereby elmer explodes steam coming out of his ears, face going red etc……so imagine you were walking by just at that very point in time….who would you think is the mad one???? :eek :eek

  22. Chloe says:

    I have a soon to be sister-in-law who is the worst at this. She and her husband actually came to my house and told my fiancee and I that we were wrong to choose his 2 brothers to be co-best men at the wedding, that her husband should have beeen the best man – even though my fiancee was NOT the best man at her husband’s wedding. They have gone to all different extremes, writing in a card at the shower, telling his mother that they won’t attend family events because of me, because they feel his mother “loves me more”…..sadly this is not the case at all, but she feels she needs to be the center of attention. Nothing we can do pleases them. They refused to attend the rehearsal or rehearsal dinner and have yet to actually tell us congratulations. We’ve done nothing to them, only tried to ignore the digs and slanderous things they’ve done….we’re at a loss.

  23. Tori says:

    I\’ve been having issues with my boyfriend for the past year… And I\’ve felt so absolutely insane for a majority of it. Like there\’s something wrong with me, yet I have no issues with the other people in my life.
    Afte I read the examples, I couldn\’t help but feel like you\’d just described him when we argue/disagree to a T.
    Thank you so so much for posting this. Truly!

  24. Unlisted says:

    What do you do when its your guardians? I know I may sound like that kid who just hates parents, but I love them to death. I just can’t stand being around them. They manipulate what I say into things that make me sound like a bad kid when I’m not. I have good grades, help around the house, have a job, do after school activities, etc. but it’s never enough. when trying to have intelligent conversions about things in which turn to arguments, (because I did something wrong) when defending myself they twist my words to make them selves look strong and me worthless, I only have another year left before I move out but it’s taking a toll on my psychy health. Suggestions?

  25. hurting mom says:

    What do you do when this type of unreasonable person has successfully alienated you from your sons? :cry

  26. julie says:

    i wish i could say i had found a way to deal with someone like this but on the contrary. i think we are BOTH crazy (or have personality disorders) because we both do things on the list you mentioned. i think i might be slightly more logical but trying to reason with him/get him to understand what i’m saying literally makes me insane. it’s like he CAN NOT comprehend what im saying or twists it around or answers my question with a completely unrelated answer. it is literally the most impossible infuriating and exhausting thing in the history of ever. and yet i feel like we are addicted to eachother. i have got to get away from this person before i become REALLY crazy.

  27. chris60 says:

    This is an interesting article with some good advice. The situations deal with difficult people and seems to capture the reality of trying to co-exist with many different types of people. Unfortunately, the superficially charming can be the most dangerous of all. I’d rather deal with an obvious grump or overt bully than these master manipulators who act nice while angling to deceive or exploit you.

  28. Merriberries says:

    I am in a relationship/ caregiver with a man who is a descriptive of your article. He is a disabled veteran I have been his neighbor friend caregiver. Everything that you talked about u have experienced . I am now at a point where it’s the “crazy” mode. Nothing I do is right , I feel like I am losing my mind. I care about him as a man and have had a personal relationship withhim. About 3 yrs ago he started getting worse to the point of lashing out to me. I have now considered not helping him with his ADL SKILLS, and just going back to a neighbor role. He mother is no help she will say one thing to me and another to him. I feel like I am slowly losing my mind to the point of contacting his VA and asking for help. We have been together for 13 yrs.

  29. George Winston says:

    I had a horrific day. Two people that attempted to make “me” the problem. Including one
    supposed “professional” that was superior in her admonishments, although the subject was from the past and there was at that time, no protocol regarding the matter. The agency she has been hired at is complete chaos, with a director that is ego/all about me based. I’m leaving their kindergarten environment. The other was a family member who has money and an emotionally vaporous husband. She is miserable to be distantly near. I appreciate your post, Dr. Biali. I am hurt.

  30. Lanie says:

    Thank you. I had somebody commenting on my site who has a history of twisting words in multiple forums, one of which has closed itself down. While it was in full swing, people got so tired of wrestling to get their ideas back that they gave up on communicating with this one. Nothing posted on my site reflects anything on this person’s site — so it was all about warping me to specific ends, not trying to pull readers to that site. Sadly, I think there was a certain amount of desperation in trying to warp my site. Must have run out of people who would sit still for it. Neither did I. Finally I received a threat never to talk to me again (!). I feel awfully sad but now you’ve confirmed my suspicions about what was really going on.

  31. Claire says:

    This is one of the most cogent and helpful list of techniques that I’ve ever read. Thank you for not suggesting that bad behavior be ignored or laughed off or that we try those “I feel when you…” techniques. Like you said, they don’t work with unreasonable people. I did write an email to this family member, but it wasn’t to work things out with her — I did it for me so I wasn’t sitting on those feelings. I felt the need to push back on offensive behavior. Going forward, the hardest part will be distancing, and giving up on the hope that we could have a healthy relationship. I’ll feel like I’m abandoning her, but my mental and physical health has to come first. A couple of strategies that work for me are: if the person is staring at you in an aggressive way, or you just need to make eye contact once in a while, look at the point between the eyes on the forehead; also, hold or have something physical between you, like a glass, chair, knitting project, book, pet. Finally I find that taking short breaks helps, like escaping to the bathroom or going outside to make a phone call.

    I can’t believe it’s taken me this many decades to finally give up. I’ve given up so many years and my mental health to unhealthy interactions with family members where I get bullied…I guess I try too hard to a fault. Nothing has really changed and I hope I have the strength to continue letting go.

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