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How to calm people down when they’re getting upset

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I once got a job based largely on my knowledge of how to calm people down when they’re getting upset. I didn’t even realize I had such superpowers – it came naturally to me.

Upset man knocking down stack of cups

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!

How to calm people down

Note: yes, most of these tips work with kids as well as adults.

Calm yourself first

If you’re angry or offended, it will be hard for you to de-escalate the situation.

  • Decide not to take it personally. The person’s anger or panic says more about their state of mind than it says about you. And they may not realize how they’re coming across.
  • Remember you’ve probably gotten overly upset yourself once or twice. Even if you’re pretty laid back, you’ve probably gotten upset in front of someone at least once in your life. It’s a normal reaction when you feel like you’ve got a legitimate, urgent concern.
  • Think of this as an opportunity to communicate better rather than a conflict. After you get an upset person to calm down and discuss things with you, you may end up bonding with them, or at least making them feel grateful to you.

The calming voice

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 fuel the person’s growing emotions.

Keep your voice at a low volume, too. Sometimes you can calm people down just by talking at a normal volume while they raise their voices.

Some words work better than others, too. Someone whose emotions are escalating out of control wants to know they are being heard. 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.

Showing understanding

In a work situation, for example, avoid a phrase like, “I can’t help – you have to talk to the boss.” Instead say something like, “I understand. As soon as the boss comes back, I’ll do X, Y and Z to fix this for you.”

Or “I’m going to look into what I can do to help, and then call you with an update as soon as I know.”

If the person is making a totally unreasonable demand, 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 nobody ever thinks they’re being unreasonable. The phrasing I suggested shows in a non-confrontational way why the person’s demand can’t be met.

Dealing with panic

If you’re dealing with someone in a panic, you need to take a different tack. They don’t care if you understand their concerns (“Yes, I understand 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 will be taken to fix the problem. Keep your voice calm, low and steady. Being “good in a crisis” is all about staying calm and giving out clear, concrete instructions like, “You call 911. I’ll go get the first-aid kit.”

When people panic, they really want instructions to follow. Go ahead and tell them what to do.

I’ve been in two situations involving workplace injuries in which my superiors panicked and I calmly told them what we needed to do. 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 developed 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 miscommunications and arguments over and over. By changing your communication style, you can break through barriers and reach a new level of understanding.

You may also want to check out my articles on dealing with people who twist your words, coping with anxiety, and stress relief.

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