How to Use the Tom Cruise Method for Dealing with Toxic People, According to 3 Therapists

When an insult flies our way, we have a few seconds to decide how to respond. Will we give in to our feelings and fire back or step away? The latest trend on TikTok suggests a third option for dealing with difficult people: asking questions. 

Called the “Tom Cruise Method” by therapist @ask_kimberly on TikTok, the technique gets its name from a red carpet incident between Tom Cruise and a man posing as a reporter. During the 2005 interview, the prankster sprays water in Cruise’s face via a fake microphone, hoping to humiliate the actor. Instead of launching into an angry outburst, Cruise asks the man questions, like, “Why would you do that?”; “What’s so funny about that?”; and “Do you like doing mean things?” When watching Cruise trade his rage for genuine curiosity, we were as stunned as the phony reporter.

The stunt made us wonder: Is the Tom Cruise Method productive when we’re up against toxic behavior? Or is it best to leave the line of questioning to mental health pros? Below, we asked three therapists to weigh in on the approach, from when we should use it to which questions to ask. 

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Meet the Experts

What is the Tom Cruise Method?

The Tom Cruise Method is a way of combatting insulting or manipulative behavior by posing questions. This helps us stay calm when we’re hurt, and (hopefully) pushes a toxic person to examine their actions. If it works for Tom, can it work for us?

Why the Tom Cruise Method Works

Looking to lower the emotional temperature of an exchange? A question is an interrupting force, explains Dr. Vasan. “It breaks the cycle. Especially where there is humor at the expense of someone else. They are likely thinking less about the impact on someone else and more about landing a funny moment.” In Cruises’s case, the reporter valued the spectacle of the prank over the actor’s personal boundaries. 

Some toxic people are simply disregarding our feelings, while others are seeking an explosive reaction. In asking about your biological clock at a family gathering, your brother hopes you’ll snap back, he might even revel in it. “One of the reasons a toxic person aims to chronically insult and offend is to cut down the other person’s self-esteem. Over time, this allows them to gain control over the narrative, play mind games and manipulate,” shares Mancao. By reserving our energy and avoiding a rampage, we’re effectively deflating the toxic person’s power balloon. Rather than going to battle over your fertility choices, turn your bro’s low blow into a painfully boring interview. 

When Not to Use It

While we’d like to believe our questions can reform a toxic person, the Tom Cruise Method isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, says Mancao. “Our initial reaction is to make someone want to feel what we feel, and to take accountability for how they have hurt us. However, this depends on the person's overall character and integrity.” So, if your boss has never apologized to anyone at the office, it’s unlikely he’ll feel guilty for poking fun at your work wardrobe. “It’s important to be aware of situational factors before jumping right to deconstructing the behavior. Can you safely interact with this person?” asks Dr. Rubenstein. If the offender begins raising their voice or further provoking, it’s wiser to sit out the interaction entirely.

How to Use the Tom Cruise Method

1. Collect Your Breath Before Responding

Turns out, Cruise’s tactic can cool us off just as much as the toxic person. Dr. Rubenstein recommends a mental pep talk in the moments after an affront, “Approach the other person calmly. Collect yourself, breathe, say you can do this (silently) and then engage.”

2. Set a Nonchalant Tone

At the very least, our composure sets the tone for the rest of the confrontation. Per the expert, “When the triggered person sees you acting compassionately and calmly, that will likely cue them to model your behavior.” Like posing a nonchalant, “What do you mean by that?” after your mother-in-law calls the dress you’ve selected for the charity fundraiser “quite the choice.” This carefree outlook “gives the other person the opportunity to engage with you in the de-escalation process,” shares Dr. Vasan.

3. Adopt a Curious Mindset

By calmly asking a question, we transmute our anger into curiosity. “Questions are a great way to shift towards a curious mindset which serves two purposes: 1) it helps us regulate our emotions and 2) it allows us to acknowledge the other person’s behavior more rationally.” Dr. Rubenstein adds. Essentially, Tom Cruise Method holds a mirror up to our manipulator. While psychologists stress that we can never control someone’s words or actions, we can prompt some self-reflection. “You can attempt to expand their perspective of their behavior. Through questions, you can de-escalate the behavior and create accountability.” Dr. Rubenstein notes. That is, if the guilty party is willing to go there.

4. Keep Questions Open-Ended

If you choose to go the Tom Cruise route, Dr. Rubenstein advises against pointing fingers. “Questions should be simple, short, and non-accusatory,” she says. Think: What’s going on?, not What’s wrong with you? Here are some examples to consider, courtesy of our three experts:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you help me understand?
  • Can you help me understand how this is funny?
  • Can you explain this to me?
  • How would you feel if someone did/said this to you or your loved one?
  • What’s going on?
  • Is everything OK?
  • Is that appropriate here/now?
  • What is your goal in acting this way?
  • What is your goal in treating me this way?
  • Would you want me speaking to you in this manner?
  • How do you feel about the way that you are speaking to me?

5. Don't Try to Resolve the Conflict

The psychologist clarifies that we shouldn’t try to solve the conflict straight away. When everyone’s taken a beat, we can try to better understand the other person’s perspective. Questioning can come later if the timing feels off, Rubenstein tells us, “When the person is in a more relaxed, receptive, and rational state of mind, now you can get to the core of the issue by clarifying motives, intentions, and sentiments, devising a plan of action to solve the problem and putting it into action.” 

6. Remember the goal: Better Boundaries

These questions are designed to derail a hurtful person’s agenda, but don’t expect any revelations. In fact, Mancao argues that boundary-setting phrases should be our first line of defense against toxic people. “Instead of asking questions to de-escalate toxic behavior, setting boundaries is the most effective and appropriate. This looks like "I cannot continue unless we are speaking calmly." "I can only communicate about the facts,” she instructs.

You can opt out of any conversation where you’re feeling attacked, whether you’re at work, Thanksgiving dinner or your kid’s hockey practice. Manacao tells us, “Trying to engage by asking questions is best handled by a professional, especially if we are talking toxic behaviors. Learning how to take care of yourself, tend to your nervous system, and love yourself is the best way to navigate toxic behavior.”

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