How To Calm Someone Down (According To 4 Experts)

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on November 16, 2020
Expert Content

What’s the best way to calm someone down?

Calming someone down is certainly not always easy. So we asked a select group of experts for their best tips and advice when it comes to calming someone down.

Here’s what they said.

Use Affect Labeling

Doug Noll, Lawyer and Professional Mediator

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, their 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 de-escalation tools that work.

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.

There is only one effective way to calm people down and that is through the process of affect labeling.

There are three steps to affect labeling:

• Ignore the angry words.
• Listen to and read their emotions.
• Reflect back their emotions with a simple ‘you’ statement.

The brain science behind this is based on the work of UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman. He has discovered through brain scanning studies that when you label feelings, the emotional centers of the brain are immediately inhibited and the prefrontal cortex is activated, restoring impulse control. Nothing else really works.

Learning how to affect label takes some practice and courage because it is counter-normative and counterintuitive to what we think should work.

However, as I mentioned above, this has been tested over ten years in maximum security prisons and has been shown to be the only skill that reliably calms anger in less than 90 seconds.

Panic and Calm

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Don’t Tell Them To Calm Down

Shannon Gunnip, Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Each person is different, and while unfortunately there is no single guaranteed method for calming someone down, there are a few tips I can recommend.

The first is actually something I would recommend not doing. Do not tell someone to calm down and expect this to be effective.

While well-intentioned, a statement like this tends to make the other person feel invalidated and that their emotional experience isn’t important to you.

Instead, I would suggest first listening to the person and allowing them a few moments to express their feelings. Sometimes we just need a minute to verbally process our emotions with another person before moving on from them.

This demonstrates to the other person that you do, in fact, care about their emotional experience.

Once you have listened and provided space for the other person to share about their feelings, another tip is to empathize with them and validate their experience by showing them you’ve heard what they said.

You might reply with something like, “It sounds like you feel pretty lonely and isolated since you started working from home. Sometimes I feel that way too, I think this transition has been challenging for a lot of us”.

Indicating that you understand why the other person is feeling anxious or upset may have the impact of lessening the intensity of those feelings in them and help them to feel more relaxed and at ease.

Yoga vs Meditation

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Let Them Have Their Emotional Experience Without Judgment

Karen Anderson, Author and Master-Certified Life Coach

There’s a funny meme that comes around every once in a while and it says, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down”.

It’s worth asking ourselves why we want others to calm down in the first place. Usually, it’s because we’re uncomfortable.

We don’t like it when others are experiencing big, difficult emotions. We want to fix it for them so we can feel better, too.

We’ve become so adept at intercepting others in the midst of their emotional experiences that we’ve made ourselves less emotionally resilient.

The paradox is that it’s only when we let others have their emotional experience without judgment – when we hold space for it – that they’re able to calm down.

One way to can do this is to focus on your own nervous system responses and increase your own capacity to feel big, intense emotions.

When you intentionally expand your capacity to feel, even by just one percent more – and especially the uncomfortable emotions – you are better able to respond to what’s going on with other people.

And the more you practice feeling, the more regulated your nervous system becomes, and you become a human thermostat, not a thermometer.

A thermometer reacts to and reflects the temperature of its environment. It is in a constant state of change, up and down.

A thermostat regulates its environment. It makes micro adjustments to maintain the desired temperature.

And when one person is regulated, those around them tend to regulate… and calm down.

Therapy

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Be Open And Non-Judgmental

Sherianna Boyle, Author of Emotional Detox

1) Repeat back to the person who is upset what you hear. For example, “So what I hear you saying is…”. Very often, people have a hard time calming down because they feel like people are not listening.

2) Give the person the space to go outside, get some fresh air or drink a glass of water. This can help to remove the person from what is triggering them. Resetting their system with fresh air or a glass of water can calm the nervous system down.

3) Be open and non-judgmental. The reality is that the person has emotions which are looking to come up to be recognized, processed and healed. It isn’t always about the situation, sometimes it is the situation that shows you what emotions you are burying.

Remain calm yourself and know what you are witnessing goes far behind what is happening. The calmer you are, the safer the other person will feel.

If you raise your voice, or do some kind of non-verbal body language like rolling your eyes, this will only escalate the other person. Instead, tune into your body – focus on the feeling of your feet on the floor and your breathing.

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