Anger is an ironic condition, and in a fit of frustration or rage, the last thing anyone wants to be told is to “calm down.” When someone’s seething, it’s the worst bit of advice, even if it’s the one thing they need to do to process things more clearly.
Sniping “calm down” often makes the frustrated person feel like they’re being hysterical or that their feelings are overblown. And although all parties typically do need to be calm to reach a resolution, there are far more productive ways to tell someone that their anger isn’t helping.
It’s hard for someone to calm down when they’re told
Anger clouds your capacity for rational thought and judgement. That’s an unfortunate fact of psychology, as a sense of personal aggravation tends to overwhelm your brain while it releases a flurry of hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline. The phrase “calm down” stands as more of an emotional trigger than a compassionate means of conflict resolution. In a blog on her website, the psychologist Susan Bernstein tells how “calm down” can feel like emotional kindling to someone who has a fire in their chest:
When someone is experiencing a lot of emotion, they cannot remain purely rational. During emotionally triggering events, the emotional centres of the brain dominate. So until the emotion subsides, it’s virtually impossible to access reasoning centres of the brain to have a logical conversation.
Saying to an emotionally distraught, visibly upset employee, co-worker, or client “Calm down,” only adds more fuel — in the form of shame — to that person’s emotional state.
It’s not only rude, but a subtle form of gaslighting. It can feel as though you’re insinuating the aggrieved person could flip a switch and be mellow if they wanted to, when you know full-well that isn’t the case.
Try validating feelings without being judgmental
The phrases “calm down,” “relax,” or “chill” acknowledge one’s feelings while at the same time invalidating them. Part of reaching a resolution involves some difficult compartmentalising: On one hand, someone has to filter out their own aggravation in order to communicate clearly, while still delineating why they’re pissed off.
Since “calm down” can often do more to make the other person feel like they’re being egged on, it’s better to try to articulate that you understand why the person might be angry. Many relationship experts agree that validating your partner — whether it’s in mundane conversations about their day or in bigger, existential dilemmas they might face — can be vital for longevity and happiness.
This is also true in conflict resolution. The good thing is, you can acknowledge that someone is pissed off while at the same time validating them. Instead of using combative words like “calm down” or “relax,” opt for a more understanding approach by saying: “I can see you’re upset. I’m sorry you feel that way. Can we take a few deep breaths and try to work this out together?” Or, “you have every right to be mad, but let’s try to talk this through once we’re both in a clearer headspace.”
Basically, you can say what you’d like, as long as you’re acknowledging two things: the other person’s feelings, and the fact that you’d like to resolve conflict peacefully.
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It’s especially bothersome to women
Women have long endured condescension from men who like to fall back on an old and sexist chestnut that any woman in the midst of an emotional break must be crazy. It’s an old, lazy stereotype that dismisses women’s emotions and paints men as inherently rational. In fact, the very concept of “hysteria” comes from a culture of brazenly sexist 18th century medical practices, and it’s a sad fact that it’s endured, at least in some form, into present day.
There are many ways to get someone to calm down that don’t actually involve saying the words “calm down.” So while it might be somewhat ironic, there’s plenty of reasons why you should erase that phrase from your argumentative vocabulary.