An important skill in dealing with people is being able to de-escalate emotions when things get tense. Whether it’s a customer at work, your spouse, a child or a teenager, there are some basic strategies you can use to help calm the situation down and help the other person regain their composure. This will enhance your ability to communicate calmly and find a rational solution to their concerns
Here are a few steps to keep in mind if you are dealing with someone who is upset or emotional:
Be mindful of your own emotions. When you give into your own knee-jerk, emotional reaction when others are provocative, you are not able to think clearly or truly listen. This is especially true if you are engaging with someone with whom you have a history, such as a teenager or your spouse. If there is a history of tension in your relationship, they will be prepared for you to respond the way you typically do; it will take an extra portion of grace on your part to put your own feelings aside and truly focus on listening to their words, as well as their emotions.
Maintain a safe personal distance. This shows that you respect the other person’s space and that you are not trying to impose your will on them. This may also be a safety measure if you feel that the other person may be capable of lashing out. Even though you may feel the urge to place your hand on their shoulder to help reassure them, touching them at the point where their emotions have them feeling defensive and irrational may not be taken the way it is intended. Simply being emotionally present and giving the other person your attention is sufficient to convey your concern.
Maintain a slow rate of speech. When the other person is upset, they are more likely to talk fast, which may provoke your own feelings of defensiveness, tension and anxiety. To help calm both you and the other person, be mindful to speak slowly and calmly. This will help ensure that you are not feeding into their aroused emotions. Speaking slowly will help them slow down and it will be easier for them to regain control of their emotions.
Maintain a low tone of voice. In addition to speaking slowly, be careful to keep your voice low and steady. Raising your voice or sounding shrill to the other person will increase their defensiveness and the feeling that they are under attack. Your instinct may be to try to match the pitch and intensity of their speech, but by keeping a low tone, you can help them come to match your tone, rather than you raising your voice to match theirs.
Get on the same level. If you are talking to someone who is sitting down or to a child, it’s important to get on their level. So, if you’re talking to a child, you might get down on your knees so you can look at them eye-to-eye. This way you eliminate the impression that you are dominating them by towering over them. With someone sitting down, you may also want to sit, as long as you do not sense that you are actually in any danger. This can help reduce the perception that you are patronizing them or making demands.
Listen. Nothing is as disarming to an upset person as feeling listened to. Often, the emotional response we see from the other person is stemming from the assumption that they will not be heard if they speak slowly and calmly. Your job is to make them feel heard when they are being calm and reasonable so that their excessive emotional expression no longer seems necessary.
Send the right message. Sometimes, even with our best intentions, our message is perceived the wrong way. Avoid saying “I understand” and focus more on “I’m here to help; what can I do?” However, even more important than the words is the nonverbal cues that convey the meaning and sincerity of your words. Use eye contact, but avoid glaring. Turn your shoulders towards the other person so that they know they have your full attention and you are not anxious to leave. Use a soft body language that avoids expressing an authoritative presence. Remember, no matter what your message is, you have to present it in a way that it can be heard by the other person.
Breath. When faced with an upset person, our own tendency is to feel tense and defensive, which often causes us to take short, shallow breaths. All of this diminishes our own ability to remain calm and to think clearly. So, remember to focus, take some deep breaths and try to be emotionally present with the other person. This will help you convey that you are genuinely on their side and that you want to seek a solution for their concerns.
If you follow these steps, they will go a long way towards helping you to communicate to the other person that you are genuinely interested in understanding their perspective and that you’re really here to help.
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker & Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.