We live in a world where people get mad. Sometimes we’re the reason, so we apologize. Other times, we’re present as our spouse, friend, relative is angry. Rather than be pure witness, we want to help. Often, we tell the person “Calm down.”
Telling an angry person to calm down is simple and direct and about as effective as eating soup with a fork. The person doesn’t want to hear it because they can’t. Their limbic system has often hijacked the brain and when someone is in the fight-or-flight response, there’s no creativity, just a singular focus on the threat.
More than not getting through, those two words will most likely piss them off because the implicit message is: Your feelings are inappropriate and you can’t handle them.
“You’re usurping control and that escalates things,” says Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
“You’re lucky if they only tell you to, ‘Go fuck yourself,’” adds Mitch Abrams, clinical psychologist in Tinton Falls and Fords, New Jersey.
Of course, there is a way to help an angry person calm down. It calls on combination of using distraction and then moving into problem-solving. Now, since no anger is the same, no approach comes with a guarantee. But by being in tune with the moment and how the two of you relate, the following phrases can get to calm.
1. “How am I right now?”
Before anything, ask yourself this. Seeing distress can cause you to feel the same, and you want to go in calm to help regulate the other person. The question lets you do a full-body check and might remind yourself to relax your shoulders or breathe fully, but also gives you time to determine how you want to be in the situation. “It’s taking intentionality,” says Beth Kurland, clinical psychologist and author of The Transformative Power of 10 Minutes. And now that you’re present …
As in, say nothing. Your spouse or friend is running at 80 miles per hour and needs time to ramp down. That comes from being able to vent, i.e., not getting interrupted. Just listen, and more than the actual words, try to hear the emotions under them. The person gets to have their say and that’s all someone wants. “There’s an immediate softening when you’re feeling heard,” Kurland says. “It creates possibilities.”
3. “Is it ridiculously cold right now?”
This question is off-center to make the person say, “What?,” but it’s also grounded in the shared moment. You could just as well ask, “What are your plans for the holidays?” or “How’s your mom?” It creates a slight pause for them to consider the answer, Bostic says.
Abrams adds that you could even try, “You want to get a burrito?,” if you sense the person isn’t completely red-lining. Whatever you do, when you lower the intensity, even for a few seconds, it’s hard to return to that level. “It takes energy to be angry,” he says.
4. “That’s so frustrating.”
If the temperature has gone down, you can move into empathizing. Avoid “I” or “You” because they steal the spotlight or put the other person on their heels. Staying in the general, third person lets you share and identify “without piling on,” Bostic says.
But one warning: Don’t say, “Those people do suck” or “Yeah, you should do that.” That’s pouring gasoline on the fire. “Validate without encouraging them,” Abrams says.
5. “I wonder if it would help to take a walk and get some coffee?”
You’re leaving the scene and offering something else to do. Keep the options limited, on the scale of two not 10, so it’s not overwhelming and the person has the final choice. “You’re imposing your frontal lobe on them, but doing it nicely,” Bostic says.
And while the brain doesn’t always multitask well, it does all right when one activity is familiar and takes little thought. Whatever you do is a transition, not necessarily the final solution. “It’s something to get them out of this rut,” he says.
6. “How will that work?”
Even after someone has calmed down, they still might fume, “I want to hit the guy” or “I want to ruin that company.” You respond with, “I get it,” “Totally understand,” or “Don’t blame you,” followed with the above. You keep up the validation, because no one ever got in trouble for feeling like hitting someone. It’s acting on it where the trouble starts, Abrams says.
But then get them to think about consequences and ultimately, “What do you want to do?” It’s building emotional literacy, of not being afraid of feelings and realizing that anger can be motivating if it’s calibrated correctly. “You can be pissed, just not so pissed that you can’t do what you want to do,” he says.
7. “Shut up.”
This is a higher risk option to make the other person say, “Huh?” You’re redirecting the anger onto you and saying that it’s okay for it to go there and that you’re able to take the person to a safe place. But it’s a ballsy move and it hinges on credibility. You need to have a strong relationship and be viewed as someone who takes on hard issues.
Whatever course you take and words you choose, ultimately, they need to be authentic. Anything else will be blown off. “Know yourself and your limitations,” Abrams says. “It might be good advice but it’s not a costume I can wear.”