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The 3 Worst Ways to Calm Someone Down

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I'm a lawyer with a masters degree in peacemaking and conflict studies. I make my living as a mediator calming angry people down.

The Secret Strategy For Calming Someone Down Almost Instantly

The secret to calming someone down quickly is to validate their emotions with a simple "you" statement. Nothing else will work. If you have tried any of the 3 examples of the worst advice I could find on the internet, you will appreciate this simple strategy.

In my work as a mediator and lawyer-turned-peacemaker, I need tools that work. I took all the courses in active listening and nonviolent communication that I could find. None of them worked.

It wasn't until my back was up against the wall in a difficult mediation in 2004, that I discovered the power of reflecting emotions. I later learned the neuroscience that supports why this type of listening is so powerful.

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There Is Much Bad Advice On How to Calm Someone Down

There is a lot bad advice on how to calm individuals down. Most of this advice comes from a misunderstanding of the work of 1960s psychologist Thomas Gordon. Gordon coined the term "active listening" and advocated the use of "I" statements. None of Gordon's work has been empirically tested with reliable, double blind testing. Thus, although "active listening" using an "I" statement is thought to be the only way to empathize with an angry person, it is not scientifically based. Despite this glaring problem, Gordon's formulaic process has been taught for over 3 generations to psychologists, therapists, and mediators without question or criticism.

As you have probably experienced, using an "I" statement to calm someone down only makes things worse. Contrary to what Gordon believed, the only effective way to calm someone down is to affect label their emotions with a "you" statement.

Read on to learn more.

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Mis-Use "I" Statements

The number 1 worst suggestion offered on how to calm someone down is to use an "I" statement instead of a "you" statement. Just about every article I have read on de-escalating anger recommend the use of "I" statements..

You may be advised to say something like, "I hear you. That seems truly hard." Or, "What I think you are feeling is…"

You have likely experienced this yourself when someone attempted to soothe you down with an "I" statement. Most people report feeling patronized, unheard, and disrespected.

As an alternative to an "I" statement, use a "you" statement. Absolutely nothing else works.

"You are angry and pissed off." "You are frustrated." "You don't feel heard."

Here's a simple rule that's easy to follow:

When you talk about your feelings and emotions, use an "I" statement.

"I'm angry and frustrated."

When you are de-escalating someone else, use a "you" statement.

"You are angry and frustrated."

If you find this a little hard to accept, do a simple experiment. Have a friend tell you a story with a little emotion in it. Reflect back her emotions with an "I" statement. Have her repeat the story. This time, reflect back her emotions with a "you" statement. Ask her which reflection felt better and more validating.


Emotional Invalidation

The second worst tip on how to calm someone down is to invalidate his or her feelings.

- "Calm down.".

- "Just relax.".

- "Don't stress over it.".

- "Stop stressing.".

- "It is going to be alright.".

- "Don't sweat about it.".

These expressions are examples of emotional invalidation, which I call the first deadly sin. It is the most pernicious psychological abuse around. Parents often unknowingly abuse their children by emotional invalidation. Research shows the suffering caused by emotional invalidation, yet the practice persists.

Instead of invalidating emotions, validate them with a "you" statement. "You are mad and frustrated."

Telling Them to Take a Deep Breath.

Given that it is emotionally invalidating, telling somebody to take a deep breath does not work. When an individual is mad, their prefrontal cortex is offline. Expecting a person to breath deeply requires that person to have the self-awareness enough to take deeper breaths. Unfortunately, self-awareness is lost in the heat of anger.

Rather than telling an angry person to take a deep breath, reflect back the anger with a "you" statement.

You would say, "You are angry and frustrated."

"Yes!"

"You feel disrespected and unheard."

"Exactly."

"You are feel you have been treated unfairly."

"Yeah!"

"You feel betrayed."

"Yes. Thank you for listening to me."

What Really Works

What really works is a counter-intuitive skill called affect labeling.

Affect labeling is a simple, three-step process:

  1. Ignore the words
  2. Guess at the emotions
  3. Reflect back the emotions with a simple "you" statement

When you reflect back the emotions of an angry person, brain scanning studies show that you assist the angry person's prefrontal cortex to reboot while inhibiting the brain's limbic structures. Humans are hard-wired for this response, which is why it works every time.

The seminal fMRI study that shows why affect labeling works can be read here.

© 2020 Doug Noll

Comments

dashingscorpio from Chicago on October 26, 2020:

Anger is the Mask that Hurt Wears.

If we keep that in mind it's easier to show some empathy before making any suggestions. More often than not an angry person feels taken advantage of, disrespected, or betrayed in some way.

You have to "meet people where they are" before you can help.