I once got a job based largely on my ability to calm people down when they were upset. I didn’t even realize I had such superpowers – it came naturally to me. But since then people have asked me how to do it, and I’ve analyzed what it is I do. It’s really pretty simple!
The first rule in dealing with someone who’s getting angry or frightened is to keep your voice low in pitch. Higher pitches signal excitement, and will only fuel the person’s growing emotions. Keeping at a low volume is good, too. Sometimes you can calm people down just by talking at a normal volume.
There are some words that work better than others, too. Someone whose emotions are escalating out of control wants to know that someone is hearing their concerns and will help them. Your first mission, then, is to let them know you’re listening – whether or not you can/will help. Avoid words like “can’t” and “but” and “no” because people tend to tune out after hearing those.
When you’re dealing with someone who’s getting angry or frustrated, instead of “I can’t help you until I talk to so-and-so” try “I understand. As soon as so-and-so gets back, I’ll do X, Y and Z to fix this for you” or “I’m going to make sure so-and-so sees this as soon as she walks in, and then I’ll call you as soon as possible to let you know what we can do.” Or if you can’t or won’t help the person (maybe the demand he’s making is totally unreasonable), try a phrase like, “I understand what you’re saying. The thing is, so-and-so also has to be considered, and her needs are different from yours.” Telling someone they’re being unreasonable rarely gets through, because naturally they think they’re right. By telling them why their request is not reasonable, you have at least a chance of getting your point across.”
Dealing with panic
If you’re dealing with someone who’s panicking, your mission is slightly different. They don’t care if you understand their concerns (“Yes, I realize there’s a mob of fire-breathing dragons headed right for us, and I share your concern” doesn’t cut it), they want to know what action is going to be taken to fix the problem (“I’m going to call the superhero paratrooper brigade on my magic ring – they’ll be here in ten seconds”). If you keep your voice calm, low and steady, the odds are they’ll believe the solution you’re proposing even if you’re totally bluffing (the one about superhero paratroopers might be a hard sell, but then again if the crisis is fire-breathing dragon mobs…). People who are “good in a crisis” are the ones who know how to stay calm and give out instructions like, “You call 911. I’ll see if there’s a doctor in that store over there.”
When people are panicked, they really want instructions to follow. You’re not being bossy to tell them what to do, and they’re too scared to argue with you – even if they’re the authority figure and you’re the underling. I’ve been in two situations involving workplace injuries in which my superiors panicked and I calmly told them what we needed to do, and in neither case did they later say I was out of line.
These tricks are ones I’ve honed in the workplace, but they apply in communications between family and friends, too. Most of us have learned responses we rattle off without thinking to people we know well, and many of those responses aren’t helpful. That’s why you can find yourself having the same fights over and over. By changing your communication style, you can break through barriers and reach a new level of understanding.