So Much Bad Advice On How to Calm Someone Down
There is so much bad advice on how to calm people down. Psychologists, therapists write most of the articles and blogs. Surprisingly, they are ill-informed about brain science. Instead, their advice comes from 1950s psychological ideas that have never been empirically tested. Little of their advice works. I know, because I have tried them all multiple times. Most of the time, the conventional wisdom makes things worse.
Why am I qualified to make these judgments? Simply stated, I make my living helping people resolve deep and intractable conflicts. I am a professional mediator and have been engaged in thousands of litigated and non-litigated disputes. I live in conflict and need practical tools.
Like the blacksmiths of old, I have created my own tools on how to calm someone down from extensive research in neuroscience and practical experience. These tools have been acid-tested in the Prison of Peace Project, which I co-founded with Laurel Kaufer. For the past 10 years, we have trained life and long term inmates how to be peacemakers and mediators in their prison communities. There is no room for error in prison. Every skill must work the first time every time because violence is always a moment away.
We have been extraordinarily successful in training 1000s of inmates in California, Connecticut, and Greece. We have new programs starting in Kenya and Italy. The tools for how to calm someone down, even a violent inmate, work.
I am motivated to teach people the right way to calm someone down because I see so much unnecessary anger, rage, and conflict. However, you must discern the excellent advice from the awful advice.
Here are my top 15 worst tips distilled from the top-ranked internet articles and blogs posted by psychologists, counselors, therapists, and other professionals.
I include an explanation of why the advice does not work and what you should do instead…
The Top 15 Worst Tips on How to Calm Someone Down
Use an “I” Statement
The number 1 worst advice given on how to calm someone down is to use an “I” statement. Here’s an example of the specific expert advice you will find everywhere on this topic.
“Listen and validate their experiences and feelings. You can say something like, “I hear you. That sounds really hard.””
The general advice is correct. Listening to emotions and validating them by reflecting them back is the only way to calm someone down. However, the error is in how you are advised to do it.
When you use an “I” statement, you are taking the focus off the speaker and putting it on yourself. The speaker no longer experiences emotional validation and just gets more upset. You had probably experienced this yourself when someone tried to calm you down with an “I” statement. You might also have observed that when you used an “I” statement in the prescribed form, it did not work very well.
Instead of an “I” statement, calm someone down with a “you” statement. “You are frustrated.” You are angry.” Nothing else works.
Emotionally Invalidate Them
The second most prolific and horrible tip on how to calm someone down amounts to emotional invalidation. Here are some common invalidating statements:
- “Calm down.”
- “Just relax.”
- “Don’t worry about it.”
- “Stop stressing out.”
- “It will be fine.”
- “Don’t get so upset.”
These phrases are examples of emotional invalidation, which I call the first deadly sin. It is the most pervasive, insidious emotional abuse around. Parents routinely invalidate upset children. Study after study shows the suffering emotional invalidation causes. Still, the advice persists.
Instead of invalidating emotions, validate emotions with a “you” statement. “You are frustrated, angry, and feel unsupported.”
Tell Them to Take a Deep Breath
Controlled, slow breathing will calm someone down. It takes too long, and the upset person must be willing to control breathing. Slow breathing works because it activates the myelinated polyvagal system and inhibits the unmyelinated polyvagal system. Watch this YouTube video I made to learn more about the polyvagal system.
Telling someone to take a deep breath does not work because it is emotionally invalidating. When someone is upset or angry, their prefrontal cortex is offline, and they cannot process their emotions. Telling someone to breath requires that person to have the self-awareness sufficient to take deep breaths. Unfortunately, self-awareness is the first thing to go out of the window with strong feelings. The advice simply is ineffective.
Instead of telling someone to take a deep breath, reflect back the emotions with a “you” statement. You are literally lending your prefrontal cortex to the upset person for the 30-90 seconds the speaker’s prefrontal cortex needs to reboot.
Another erroneous and familiar piece of advice from the “experts” on how to calm someone down is to ask questions. Too often, asking questions become interrogations or move the process to the listener’s agenda. Asking questions is also emotionally invalidating. (When Someone Takes Their Anger Out On You, Use These 3 Amazing Strategies)
The only type of question that works is a simple, open-ended question like:
“What’s going on?”
“Tell me more?”
“Is there anything else?”
Any other question will only agitate an upset person.
Do not what people are feeling. When you ask, “Are you [angry, upset, frustrated, anxious, or other emotions]?” you are requesting an upset person to do the impossible. When highly emotional, people often become alexithymic. They have lost the ability to name their emotions. When you ask them if they feel some emotion, they will lash out in frustration because they cannot answer the question.
Use a Calm Voice
Sometimes using a calm voice works. However, if you watched the YouTube video above on polyvagal theory, you learned that an angry person cannot respond to a quiet voice by calming down. Instead, that person will tend to become more furious.
The better practice is to match tonality, volume, and speed with the upset person. As you reflect back on the emotions, keep your voice just below the other person’s intensity level. Generally, if someone is outraged, your first reflection will cause a louder response. Follow with your voice. The second reflection will cause a drop in volume and intensity. Follow with your voice. By the third reflection, te upset person will calm down.
This is the only proven method for how to calm someone with your voice.
Ask Them to Be Rational
Asking an emotional person to be rational will only enrage them further. People who give this advice do not understand that we humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. When we are highly emotional, we simply cannot think because particular limbic circuits shut down our prefrontal cortex.
If an angry person’s prefrontal cortex was activated, she would not need to be calmed down because she could do it for herself. Asking her to turn on that circuit is asking her to do the impossible. Telling someone to be rational is also emotionally invalidating and patronizing. No wonder people get even more pissed off when you give them this advice.
Excuse, Justify, Explain
Sometimes, you might face an angry person and have an “expert” advise you to excuse, justify, or explain yourself. This never works for several reasons. First, the moment you focus on yourself, you are not listening to the upset person. You are invalidating them. Second, excuse, justification, and explanation assume that the other person is rational enough to evaluate your statements. Not true. An angry person is emotional, not logical. Any appeal to thinking through excuses, justifications, or explanations will fail.
Appeasing occurs when you supplicate yourself to the angry person. You are saying, “I’m weak. You are strong. Please don’t hurt me. What can I do to make you happy?” By now, you should see that appeasing is emotionally invalidating because it’s about you and your fear of retribution. And, if you watched the YouTube video on polyvagal theory, you will learn that being weak in the face of anger is not how to calm someone down. The perception of weakness intensifies anger because the angry person is looking for safety, not domination.
Many “experts” advise early apology. I disagree. My experience is that most of the time, upset people are not angry with me. They may direct their anger at me because I am creating an emotionally safe space. However, their anger is not my responsibility. People apologize even when they don’t know if they have any fault because they want the anger to go away. A premature apology is as bad as appeasing because it has the same effect.
Most of the time, becoming counter-aggressive does not work to calm someone down. However, there are two situations where counter-aggression might be useful. The first is when you decide that you need to startle the upset person out of rage. Yelling back, using “you” statements can be useful.
The second is when the angry person overtly becomes violent. In that case, if you cannot run and hide, your only alternative is counter-aggression to defend yourself. The key is to protect without getting angry. Aggression and anger are entirely different. If you have to use counter-aggression, you must remain calm and centered. This is the essence of all martial arts training. Disclosure: I am a second-degree black belt and a tai chi master. Without my level of training, run and hide.
I just advised you to run away in the face of violent counter-aggression. If an angry person not imminently violent confronts you, do not run away. Instead, stand your ground. Reflect the anger and frustration with “you” statements until the person is calmed down.
Do not try to solve the problem underlying the upset until you have de-escalated the emotions. Most untrained, emotionally incompetent people go to problem-solving immediately. They do this because they don’t know any better and try to soothe their own anxiety. Resist the urge to solve the problem. Instead, listen to and reflect the emotions with a “you” statement.
Let Them Vent
I see this advice too often. Many “experts” have not gotten the memo that Freud’s catharsis theory of emotions is wrong. In fact, very little of Freud’s theories are supported by double-blind empirical studies. His data set consisted of 16 upper-middle-class white, Viennese women in their 30s and 40s. From his observations of these women, he derived his entire theory of mind and human behavior. Studies show that allowing people to vent their anger only makes them angrier. Your only response to calm someone down is to reflect back their emotions with a “you” statement.
Sometimes, an angry outburst takes us by surprise. Other times, we might see it coming. The best way to calm someone down is to stand into the storm rather than run from it. Again, emotional reflection with a “you” statement is the only response that has been empirically proven to work.
Go “Out on the Balcony”
This last tip comes from the famous book “Getting to Yes,” by Fisher and Ury. They talk about gaining space to cool down and gain perspective by “going out on the balcony.” This is useful advice for negotiators but is not how to calm someone down. As you have probably gathered, anything you say or do other than reflect back an upset person’s feelings and emotions simply will not work.
The Three Steps to How to Calm Someone Down
Rather than using any of the 15 worst ways to calm someone down, do this instead (3 Powerful New De-Escalation Techniques That Work):
Ignore their words.
Listen to and read their emotions.
Reflect back their emotions with a simple “you” statement.
I invite you to sign up for my regular emails to learn more about how to calm someone down by executing this powerful strategy. And tell me how you reacted to these ideas with your comments. I respond to every comment.