I’ve written that anger is a messenger that won’t shut up until its message is heard and understood. But if the anger is so big or so loud you can’t hear straight, there are things you can do to help someone calm down. And a few things you shouldn’t do…like these five missteps.
I’ve written lots about ways to help someone calm down. But last week, while prepping a workshop, I realized I’ve omitted something important — what not to do. The list of not-to-do’s is implicit, and occasionally explicit, inside all those articles about de-escalating anger, but I thought it was time to list plainly my top five.
What to avoid and why
There will always be an exception to any rule of thumb, but in general, these are reactions and approaches to avoid if your goal is to reduce the heat level of an angry exchange. They are worth avoiding if you’re a participant in the exchange or trying to mediate it.
Telling them to calm down
When I ask workshop participants what they think belongs on the not-to-do list, this one almost always comes up first. It’s a good one to put first. Telling someone who is angry that they should calm down is like throwing gasoline on flames. It’s likely to cause a flare up because it holds up the very worst kind of mirror to an angry person: A mirror that doesn’t just show them how they’re being, but does so dripping with disapproval.
Trying to reason them back into reasonableness
Conflict and stress impair self-control, increase the activity of the threat-detection network in our brain, and inhibit the part of our brain associated with reasonableness and communicating reason. Trying to appeal to a person’s reason when they’ve temporarily lost it is like appealing to a drowning person’s ability to swim…wanting to doesn’t mean they will be able to.
Meeting force with equal force generally escalates anger instead of reducing it. While it’s tempting to demonstrate that you will not be cowed by the tidal wave of their emotional state, doing so will cause them to continue to push and maybe even up the ante slightly to get the upper hand in their anger. It’s a figurative arms race that usually does little to help.
Ending the conversation as punishment
A few years ago I taught a workshop for a customer call center that had been getting poor results. It turned out that when a customer got unpleasant or angry, the call center reps had been instructed to tell the customer to call back when they were calm — and then disconnect the call. What did those angry customers do? You guessed it: They called right back. Now they were angrier and woe to the next call center employee who inherited them. Ending the conversation isn’t necessarily the problem — it’s how the conversation is ended that’s the problem I’m drawing your attention to here. It often has the opposite of the intended effect for the same reason that “calm down” does.
Encouraging or permitting venting
Blowing off steam isn’t a good mechanism for calming down, despite what Freud thought. While it feels cathartic, venting anger doesn’t purge aggression from the system or improve psychological state. It’s more likely to increase anger and aggressiveness. If this is news to you, listen to The Venting Myth Revisited and read the research articles linked there.
What are the things you can and should do instead of these five missteps? Here are some of my favorite ways to de-escalate anger.