How to Calm Someone Down
It’s not exactly a pleasant experience, encountering someone who’s basically having a meltdown. Maybe they're justifiably angry or only mildly upset or perhaps even in the throes of a panic attack. But a gentleman always takes control of a situation. It might not be your job, but everyone will be better off if you help calm them down. Knowing how to soothe someone and walk them back from the proverbial edge in these sorts of situations requires empathy and some know-how, but will benefit everyone involved. Consider it a life skill worth learning.
People get upset for various reasons, but much of it boils down to fear and disappointment which triggers the old fight-or-flight response in our nervous system. That physical response will often override rational thought and normal emotional regulation. What happens next is feelings of anxiety or outrage that starts to bubble up. This is why you might be dealing with a co-worker going berserk about a clash with another team member or a customer who's blaming you for something out of your control or a loved one spinning out of control because they're overwhelmed with, well, it could be anything. But you're likely caught off-guard and starting to get pulled into that chaos.
The upset person is now making you (and others around you) uncomfortable. And if nothing is done, an emotional outburst could escalate into something more upsetting or even legitimately dangerous. You want to calm them down (and fast), but how do you do that? According to Whitney Goodman, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist, most of us are quick to reach for a cliche or positive statement when someone is hurting, “we scramble to make the pain go away,” she says. That's a natural instinct, but we should ignore it. Your job is to stay cool and collected and remember not to react and say something unhelpful like, “you need to calm down.” When someone's genuinely upset, more than anything, they want someone to listen and refrain from providing advice until they're ready. “They want to feel heard, seen and understood.”
Listen Actively& Validate
Before offering any solutions or advice, listen attentively to the person's concerns. Allow them to express their feelings without interruption. Show empathy by nodding, maintaining eye contact, and providing verbal cues such as “I hear you,” or “I get that” and “that sounds tough”. This, too, helps the person feel acknowledged and validated. This helps build trust and opens the door for a more productive conversation.
Put yourself in the angy person's shoes and try to understand the situation from their perspective. Empathizing with their emotions helps create a connection and shows that you genuinely care about their well-being. Goodman points out that empathizing with someone who is irrationally upset or even acting rudely or erratically doesn't mean you're condoning the behavior or even agreeing with them. It's about understanding how they got to this point. Simply adding “tell me more” when you're letting them speak can defuse an emotionally charged situation. And sometimes, when an upset person can get it all out, they already feel better and begin to calm down.
Maintain Your Calm
The way you communicate can significantly impact the person's emotional state. Speak in a calm, gentle tone to avoid escalating the situation. A steady voice can have a soothing effect and help de-escalate tension. Then, focus on your breathing by taking deep, slow breaths next to the person who's upset. Goodman says, “This often works better than telling someone to 'just breathe.' If you notice that breathing is labored, try slowly taking a deep breath in and out. The body will often mimic the energy around it.”
Offer Physical Comfort
In times of intense fear and pain, a simple arm around the shoulder can go a long way. You can place your hand on their shoulder or back, but check in to see what they can tolerate before initiating or using more touch. Physical comfort can be a powerful way to convey empathy and support, but be mindful of the other person's comfort level and boundaries so that it doesn't come off like you're crowding them.
Remember, each person is unique, so adapt these techniques based on your own needs and the specifics of the situation, along with the other individual's preferences. But calmly handling someone who is angry or upset will help create a positive and constructive atmosphere, which fosters understanding and, often, a helpful resolution. They'll feel better and you'll have quickly and effectively weathered the storm without making it worse.
Whether you’re upset yourself or dealing with an angry person, it can be helpful to “release the anger or anxiety” by getting outside and going for a walk. It not only gets you out into a new environment, but the physical activity releases serotonin that will help you calm down and feel better.