The Secret to Avoiding an Argument with a Toxic Person, According to a Therapist

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You’re hanging out in your sister’s backyard, having a nice afternoon with your family, when your cousin sidles up and wants to talk politics. Specifically, how much he disagrees with yours. You’ve been down this route every time you get together: He tries to get a rise out of you, he succeeds and you both get into a screaming match across the bowl of potato salad. You end up leaving early, frustrated that you let him get to you again. Meanwhile, your cousin almost seems vindicated that he made you lose your cool. 

While we’d love to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say that no one wants to argue, the fact is that some toxic people—whether it’s a co-worker with a legitimate personality disorder like narcissism, or a toxic family member who just gets amused by seeing you get frustrated—actually enjoy it. But instead of getting hooked by their tactics again and again, there’s a therapist-approved method of disengaging before the argument starts.

The secret? If you stay calm, you hold the power, says psychologist Seth Meyers Psy.D in Psychology Today. Of course, that’s easier said than done. So when a toxic person starts trying to engage you, he suggests trying to recall the birthdays of your friends and family. Then, just smile and nod. Is Aunt Erica’s birthday on March 17 or 18? What about Cousin Lillian? Oh shoot, it’s Kelly’s birthday on the 23rd, I’d better buy her a present…

By making an effort to distract yourself, you’ll be less likely to get triggered by something the toxic person says. And it doesn’t have to be remembering birthdays—making a shopping list or to-do list in your head works too. Soon, the toxic person will give up and you can get back to enjoying the potato salad. 

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Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.