Blog Short #147: Why You Shouldn’t Tell Someone to “Calm Down” When They’re Angry
Today’s blog subject comes from a meme I posted recently on Facebook that seemed to resonate with many people. The meme is pictured above.
How does that sit with you? Have you ever been told to calm down when you were angry or upset? I have, and I didn’t like it. Most people don’t.
There are reasons why this isn’t a good response, and today I’ll go over them along with a better way to deal with someone who’s emotionally heated up.
Let’s start with why it doesn’t work.
Why It’s the Wrong Response
When you tell someone who’s upset to “calm down,” you’re saying one or all of these three things, none of which will be well-received.
- Your feelings aren’t valid.
- You’re out of control.
- I don’t want to deal with you.
Those are not messages anyone wants to hear when they’re angry. They feel critical and dismissive. You feel like a child being chastised for bad behavior.
And if you have a history of not being heard, usually beginning in childhood, you’re triggered even more by that kind of response. You might get angrier, cry, or shut down entirely.
There’s a better way to respond.
What You Should Do Instead
When someone’s angry, they want to be validated, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong.
Think about a time you were upset or angry about something. What helped?
For most of us, it’s having someone listen and validate our feelings. Partly, that’s because below the anger are feelings of helplessness – helpless to get the other person to understand what you’re saying, powerless to stop someone from being mean or hurting you, or being unable to get something you need.
It’s not always easy to get to the helplessness. It might be hidden under other feelings like a desire for revenge, disbelief, exasperation, etc.
Why do people picket? Because they’ve been unsuccessful in being heard and taken seriously about an issue. They feel helpless to stop or change something that’s causing them pain.
With that as a backdrop, here’s a four-part strategy you can use the next time you’re dealing with someone who’s angry or upset about something.
Ask what’s bothering them. The simple act of doing that offers acceptance and validation of both the person and the feeling. You’re saying,
“If you’re that upset, you must have a good reason, and I’m interested in hearing what that is.”
That alone will begin to change and lower the emotional temperature because it puts a chink in the underlying feelings of helplessness.
For your part, you want to remain calm but curious. Approach the person with interest and delve into what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it. Listen openly and let them roll the whole thing out without interrupting. Do this whether you agree with the content or not.
Once they’ve said their piece, you can ask questions to clarify anything that isn’t clear or you don’t understand. Asking questions without judgment shows that you’re genuinely interested in understanding their point of view.
Don’t interrogate. Ask just enough to ensure you have the whole picture.
Repeat back what you’ve heard with empathy.
“So you’re upset because . . . ., and you’re feeling . . . . I can see how that might bother you. I might feel the same way in your position.”
Or if the reaction seems over the top or misplaced, simply repeat back what you think they’re feeling without judgment.
For example, if I were standing in line at the grocery checkout and the guy in front of me started ranting because the cashier wasn’t going fast enough, I would likely think the reaction was too big for the situation, especially if I’d noticed the checkout process was a tad slow, but not out of the ordinary. I may wonder if something else is bothering him to have such a big reaction or if maybe he tends to be easily angered.
In a case like that, I would just mirror back how he felt, not what I thought about how he felt. I might say,
“So you feel like your time isn’t valued, and you’ve got other things to do besides standing in the grocery line.”
That would likely get a punctuated “YES!”
In this case, I’m just mirroring the feelings I think he’s having without contradicting why or to what extent he’s reacting. And the result is he’ll likely feel validated and leave the store calmer.
If someone’s angry with me, I’d go through the same routine but be more specific in teasing out the emotions and reasons. I’d listen to what’s bothering them, focus on how and what they’re feeling, inquire what actions resulted in those feelings, and empathize with their point of view even if I disagreed.
Doing all that diffuses the anger and connects you. The person feels heard, making them more amenable to hearing what you have to say.
This last one is included in the first three, but it’s good to note it separately because it’s important.
Now that you’ve heard everything, what does this person want or need from you? Was it just to be heard and validated?
In most cases, that’s all they wanted. That’s true of the fellow shopper in the grocery store. He just wanted to be heard and understood.
Other times, especially when the anger’s personally directed, something more is needed. Maybe they want you to help solve a problem, or they need a commitment from you about something. Maybe they’re looking for an apology.
Back to our picketers – they want action taken to resolve the issue they’re upset about. The same might be true for a spouse who wants something specific from their partner or a parent who wants to see a change in their child’s behavior.
Identify what you think is being asked for, and if you’re not sure, ask directly. You might say,
“I can see why you’re upset about this situation. What do you want or need to resolve it?”
A question like that is conciliatory, especially if the anger is due to a problem you’re having with each other.
If that’s not the case and the situation has nothing to do with you, but you still feel like something is hanging in the air unsaid, you can say,
“Did you need me just to listen and allow you to vent some, or was there something else?”
Directness is almost always appreciated and makes things clear so that no one walks away with mixed feelings that linger and come up again later. This is particularly true in the case of relationship issues.
It’s Not Always That Easy
Dealing with anger using the process I’ve laid out usually helps, but it gets sticky when the angry person doesn’t know why they’re upset or projects their feelings onto the listener.
It still helps to go through the four steps, but it may not have the neat resolution I’ve suggested if there’s a lot of confusion in the first place. It depends on how emotionally savvy or intelligent the person you’re dealing with is.
People who are more challenging are those who:
- Are chronically angry.
- See themselves as victims, which colors their perceptions.
- Haven’t learned and sometimes don’t want to learn how to express their feelings appropriately.
- Use anger to create distance, define themselves, or manipulate.
Even so, the process above will highlight some of those tendencies so that you can work with them or, at the very least, avoid getting swept up by the other person’s emotions.
Next week I’ll address people who seem to need to argue and often pick fights or start conflicts.
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,