When a friend or loved one is angry, it’s natural to want to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. Anger is a hard emotion to witness and because we genuinely care about these people, we want to help them to feel better. Unfortunately, in efforts to say the right thing, we can end up making things worse by saying exactly what the other person doesn’t need to hear.
So what are some basic rules to keep in mind? In general, you want to be on the lookout for saying anything that might undermine, invalidate, or stoke someone’s anger. Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker providing psychotherapy in Towson, Maryland, says to avoid any one-upmanship as well. Any statement that might imply your superiority or the other’s inferiority or judgment calls on the other’s responses should also be avoided. “Our call-out culture has encouraged this natural human tendency to focus on another’s flaws instead of our own,” she says.
If you’re speaking with someone who’s angry and want to help them through the emotion, here are a few phrases to avoid telling them.
1. “You’re overreacting/being too sensitive.”
To you, it might feel like the person is overreacting. Hell, maybe they are a bit. But that’s not what they need to hear at the moment. Whatever they’re feeling is very real to them and for you to say something that dismisses those emotions is very invalidating.
“At a minimum, [these statements] can cause them to react defensively,” says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health. “At worst, it can be considered gaslighting.”
2. “I’m going to ignore you until you calm down.”
This tactic can stem from a desire to avoid conflict or an inability to communicate. But, more often than not, it’s an unhealthy way to exert some power over the conversation.
“Giving someone the silent treatment, even if they are frustrated or experiencing intense emotions, is effectively a form of manipulation,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn. That’s not to say that a break from an argument can’t be a good way to gather one’s thoughts. Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
3. “If you continue to act like this, there will be consequences.”
Ultimatums are never the way to diffuse an argument. In fact, they will usually have the opposite effect. The other person will only feel pressured by your words and probably react harshly. Or they will give in to avoid the consequences, without actually resolving the issue.
“If you feel like the conversation is only escalating and you’re uncomfortable, the best option is to remove yourself from the situation and revisit the discussion at a later time when both parties have had an opportunity to cool off,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn.
4. “You’re acting crazy.”
’Not only does the term “crazy” perpetuate stigma around mental illness, dismissing someone’s feelings as irrational is disrespectful and invalidating. “In their escalated state of anger, this only fuels the angered state even more,” says Lesley Koeppel, a licensed clinical social worker. “It is name-calling, puts the other person on the defensive, and is not helpful.”
5. “What do you want me to do about it?”
When you use this expression, you’re effectively laying the blame at the other person’s feet. You’re telling them that solving their anger is not your problem and that they should be doing something to handle the situation. “It also assumes that feelings need to be fixed,” says Koeppel. “Sometimes angry feelings just need to be let out–in as calm a manner as possible.”
6. “You’re wrong.”
When someone is angry, telling them that they’re wrong distracts from the issue and ignites a protective instinct that will only further the argument. “This is a sure way to escalate any situation by putting the other person on the defensive,” says Koeppel. “By saying this, you have created a second thing to fight about.”
7. “You’re acting just like…”
Whether it’s their mother or father or anyone whose name might be a trigger for them, comparing them to someone they may have a contentious or complicated relationship with is pretty much guaranteed to escalate the argument and make them even angrier. “Put simply, these are just fighting words and are never helpful,” says Koeppel. “It is a version of name-calling and a way to put the other person down.”
8. “What’s wrong with you?”
When people are angry, they can also feel defensive and feel a need to protect themselves. When you say something like, “What’s wrong with you?”, you’re telling them that their anger is not a normal response to the situation. Even if that may be true, the other person is not going to hear it, and that defensive urge is going to cause them to lash out further. “It can be very dismissive and can lead someone to feel shame the next time they feel angry,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a psychologist and media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. “This can also lead to a person bottling up their anger in the future and not have healthy ways of releasing emotions.”
9. “Just look on the bright side.”
An angry person’s mindset is governed solely by their feelings. So, while logically it may be a good idea to ask them to think positively, they are almost entirely incapable of doing so. As a result, this phrase sounds belittling and like you have no idea what they’re feeling or thinking. “It is not helpful to tell someone to ‘just think positive’ as this requires them to be logical and reasonable,” says Lira de la Rosa. “It is possible to think positively, but only after the person is able to regulate their emotions and their physiological responses to anger.”
10. “You need to calm down.”
This request is not only invalidating but also rather impossible. Anger produces a physical as well as psychological response. They may be unable to calm down immediately. “Telling someone to ‘calm down’ is not effective,” says Lira de la Rosa. The person may not be able to get their body and mind to a place of calmness or relaxation as the body is prepared to protect itself from perceived threats or danger.”
Each of the above might be obvious to read but it’s nonetheless important to understand why they shouldn’t be said. If your inclination when dealing with an angry person is to employ negative, controlling, or gaslighting phrases, you should ask yourself why.
In terms of in-the-moment interactions, Dr. Patel-Dunn recommends sticking to the basics. Use “I” statements. Be clear and direct in your communication. Listen without making the other party feel judged. (Here are some more tips for helping someone calm down)
It’s also important to remember that anger is often a bodyguard. When a person is angry or upset, there are underlying emotions there that are more prevalent. These can include grief, disappointment, or sadness. Try to target those emotions instead of anger.
“Anger is a secondary emotion,” says Perlin. “Recognize that behind the anger there is a vulnerable emotion. Consider if it would be reasonable to make the same response to someone who is hurt or disappointed. If not, it probably won’t serve you with an angry person.”
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