Let’s get one thing out in the open straight away. No one in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down after being told to calm down. Not ever. Ever ever ever. Never happened.
But it’s still the first thing that comes out of our mouths when we’re exasperated by someone’s behaviour. Hell, I’m supposed to be an expert at this stuff and I’m still guilty of telling my three-year-old to calm down on a regular basis. It doesn’t work, but sometimes it makes me feel better.
That’s the point, isn’t it?
It doesn’t actually resolve the behaviour, but it makes us feel better.
Telling someone to “Calm down!” is actually a venting mechanism for the person saying it. I’m announcing to the world (anyone who is in earshot) that I don’t approve of this behaviour. That my ability to control my emotions is superior to the person having the meltdown (… which is funny when you consider often CALM DOWN is delivered in a shrill shriek.) I’m giving a command that better be followed or else I’m going to escalate to… yelling at you more?
Can you see why this might not work with someone who is already angry? Someone that perhaps feels like they’re not being heard? Someone who is frustrated at being told what to do rather than consulted?
When you tell someone to calm down, you’re doing it for your emotional benefit, not theirs. Got it? Good. Glad we got that sorted.
Unfortunately, that’s just the first episode of the season when it comes to mistakes we make when trying to de-escalate problematic behaviour.
Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist. I’m someone who has many hours of practical experience de-escalating angry, upset, confused, and desperate people. I’ve compounded this experience with extensive study into communication, behavioural psychology, negotiation and neuroscience. I don’t have all the answers, especially when it comes to complex developmental, neurological or mental health disorders. This information is general in nature and should not replace clinical guidance from a mental health professional.
Dumb mistake number 1: Trying to be logical
“They just won’t listen to me!”
“I don’t know what to do, he just won’t see reason!”
“She’s being completely irrational!”
Yes. She probably is. That’s not her problem. It’s your problem.
When someone gets very angry their brain and body chemistry is affected. Adrenaline floods their bloodstream. Blood flow changes. Time distortion is common. Senses are heightened. Our reasoning becomes emotionally dominant, not cognitively dominant.
Until you deal with her emotions, you cannot access the logical part of her brain. It doesn’t matter how much sense you make to you or the people around you, she can’t hear you! It’s like gesturing at a blind person — you’re wasting your time even if it looks like you’re doing something productive.
Acknowledge the emotion. Find the cause. Fix it if you can.
“Lisa, I can see you’re really upset. I completely get it. What can I do to make this better for you?”
If you can’t fix it, at least validate it. Calmly.
Dumb mistake number 2: Not being calm yourself
You can’t calm someone down if you’re not calm yourself.
Like a morbidly obese personal trainer, it’s going to be a hard sell.
In every course I teach, I stress from the very beginning a very simple mantra when it comes to workplace de-escalation.
If you are emotionally involved, you shouldn’t be physically involved.
I don’t care what your reasons are. If you’re having an emotional reaction to the behaviour you’re trying to resolve, you’re going to be ineffectual and more than likely make things worse. No exceptions. You have to be calm, detached, empathetic and able to access any strategy that you have in your toolbox. If you’re angry, frustrated, upset, sad, scared or anxious, your capacity is greatly diminished.
This is not a value judgement on you. This is strictly about immediate tactical capability.
There have been several situations over the years where, despite being the best communicator on the team, I’ve been too emotionally close to a situation to deal with it well. You need to recognise that and pull yourself out.
What about outside of work? I do this at home, too. I’ve got four daughters, all under the age of seven. They know all of my buttons. For any number of reasons, I just might not be in the mood to deal with their shenanigans. Soon enough, I’ll find myself yelling at them to “CALM DOWN!”, threatening to re-home their imaginary friend and ban them from technology until they’re 23. Thankfully, my wife knows the signs and will tell me when I’ve lost the plot.
Go sit down. Give it to someone else.
Dumb mistake number 3: Being unnatural
It drives me crazy when I see well-intentioned but classically-indoctrinated conflict management trainers teaching verbal de-escalation like it’s a script to be memorised.
You cannot learn to manage behaviour by rote.
That’s why this article isn’t titled “10 simple phrases that will calm down anyone!!!!”
I have had clients ask for that, by the way. Some kind of hack. Some quick tips. Some throwaway lines that you can just regurgitate and make your problems go away.
Sorry, it doesn’t work quite like that.
I do have some quick phrases in my playbook that can buy you time or set the right tone, but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t know how to play the ball that comes back at you. You actually have to communicate like a human being. Conflict communication is more like ice dancing than ice hockey. You can’t crash your partner into the glass if they don’t go where you want them to. You need to guide them back into the routine and work together to get the desired outcome.
A side point on that: don’t try to become someone else when de-escalating. If your normal personality is Dirty Harry, don’t become Richard Simmons when someone is upset. It’s artificial, creepy, and they’ll know you’re playing them.
Dumb mistake number 4: Talking too much
There are set reasons why you should talk when de-escalating problem behaviour.
- To introduce yourself and set the framing for the conversation.
- To ask questions you genuinely want to hear answers to.
- To reassure the person that you’re listening.
- To provide a short, well-considered, and well-informed solution to the problem presented.
That’s it. If you’re repeating yourself louder and louder, try it a different way or STOP.
If you’re doing more than 20% of the talking, you’re almost definitely doing it wrong.
If you’re talking more than listening, you’re probably going to get punched in your over-active mouth.
Shut up. Listen. That’s all.
There’s a lot more that we do wrong, but this is a start. If you can manage emotion first, stay calm yourself, remain natural and listen more than you talk, you’ll be leagues ahead of most people.
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