When someone is emotionally swamped by anger, it can be helpful to redirect them temporarily away from their feelings and engage their cognitive capacities. The following invitation helps de-escalate anger particularly well and deserves a permanent home in your conflict resolution toolbox.
Anger is a signal, not a defect. It’s a signal that something important is not being heard or understood — or they believe it’s not being heard or understood. Perception or reality, same result.
When anger is particularly hot, it’s virtually impossible to reason someone back into reasonableness. And encouraging or supporting a continued focus on angry feelings can actually increase aggression.
One excellent way to de-escalate anger aimed toward you or someone else is to redirect — that is, to direct attention away from the self-immersive, feeling-focused state.
And one excellent way to do that is to focus their attention on something that will engage their “thinking brain.” One of my favorite ways to accomplish this is with this statement:
Help me understand…
Help me understand what you’re saying. Help me understand what’s important to you here. Help me understand what I’m missing. Help me understand what they’re missing. Help me understand what you really need them to hear.”
Notice that I am not finishing the sentence with “…how you’re feeling” or “…why you’re feeling that way.” Those invitations would encourage more focus on self-immersive behavior, and I don’t want to do that if I’m trying to de-escalate anger.
Help me understand is a powerful phrase because it focuses attention on the important thing that anger is signaling about. It’s powerful because it helps engage their cognitive capacities, which will often help them regain their emotional balance.
And it’s powerful because when someone is trying to tell you what they most want you to understand, teaching drains outrage.