How to calm someone down when they are upset at you

Posted by Karen Degen on 2nd October 2017

Tags: calm someone down, resolve conflict

When someone is experiencing a negative emotion the thinking part of their brain turns off. If you try and rationalise with them as to why you didn’t mean it that way, or why they are getting upset for the wrong reason, it will not work! So don’t do it. Calm them down first so their rational brain re-engages.

Step 1:  Make them feel understood

Once people feel understood most of the oomph goes out of their emotion. To make them feel understood you can simply say something like “I understand how you feel”. A statement like this does not mean you agree with them, nor that you see things from the same perspective. It’s simply stating that you understand how they feel (from their perspective). Of course if you don’t understand you will need to ask questions first to ensure you do. For example “Help me to understand why you are feeling X right now”, or “what is it that you are feeling right now”? That might seem like a stupid question if they are obviously upset but ‘upset’ could mean anger, hurt, rejected, abandoned or any number of emotions. They won’t feel understood unless you understand. Remember, you are not seeking to agree with them. Just understand what they are feeling. Do NOT, until step 3, defend yourself or try to make them see things differently or tell them your side of it. Step 1 is to make them feel understood and it is not about you, your perspective or your feelings. That comes later in Step 3.

Step 2:  Validate their feelings

Once again, you do not have to agree with their feelings. Just validate them. Why do this if you don’t agree with them? So they don’t feel wrong for feeling what they are feeling. Even if they are wrong, you telling them that will only make them more upset. You don’t have to lie to them to validate their feelings. For instance “I acknowledge your feelings”, or “I can see why you would feel that way” doesn’t in any way indicate that you agree with them, but will still make them feel valued for feeling what they feel.

Step 3:  Check the level of agitation/calm

If you have done Step 1 and 2 well the person should be a lot calmer and the rational part of their brain should have re-engaged. If not, do more of Step 1 and 2. Only when they are rational and calm should you try to help them see things from your side, or try to explain why there was a misunderstanding.