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The worst way to calm someone down

Think back a time when you were really angry, frustrated, freaked out, and someone told you to, "Relax. It's gonna be fine. Take a deep breath. Chill." Did this advice make you want to:

A) take a deep breath and relax


B) Take a crowbar to that person's head and THEN relax

If you're like most people, and you're being honest, the answer is "B".

But it's the most intuitive thing we usually do -- either out of an honest attempt to calm them down, or because we think they're being irrational, ridiculous, over dramatic, type-A, or immature. In other words, we don't think their state is justified.

One of the most fascinating things I saw last week at the Parelli conference was a demonstration of taking three different extremely nervous (what they refer to as "right brain") horses--fearful, pacing, tense--and bring them to a relaxed state. What I expected was what we're all taught to do (or do instinctively with both pets and people)... a process of trying to be as calm and reassuring as possible. After all, becoming excitable ourselves can't possibly do anything but add more feul... right?

But what I saw was just the opposite.

The trainer, Linda Parelli, Lindabio walked near the first horse and started pacing with him. When he turned, she turned. When he stopped to look at something he was afraid of, she stopped to look. When he started to run, she started to run. When he was tight with h is head up, she tighted her body as well. She just kept mirroring him like that for quite a few minutes, and then ever so slowly she started to "lead" just a little by getting to the point where he would normally turn around and taking just one step past it. The horse would follow, but then that was his limit and he'd turn, and she'd turn.

Over the course of 15-20 minutes, she eventually got him to a point where he was paying attention to her and letting her help him go past his earlier limits. Most importantly, whenever he relaxed--even if just for a split second--she would relax as well. But the instant he tensed up, she'd tense her body as well. Soon you could see a dramatic transformation--where the horse was eventually trying to figure out how to get her to calm down... and learning that if he relaxed, then she would. So the horse was believing that it was his job to "get this crazy human to relax."

Linda did variations of this with three different horses, all dramatic examples of how this seemingly counterintuitive approach could work a small miracle.

Obviously horses don't think like people. They have prey animal brains, and operate largely on the instincts of life-preservation. But still, I couldn't help but think how much more pissed off I get when I'm really upset and someone tells me to calm down. How completely unhelpful it is when I'm nervous and worried about something and someone tells me to "chill".

The foundation of many customer service training programs is to give an angry customer your full attention but remain as rational and cool and calm as possible. We're taught that if we match the customer's right-brain emotion with an emotional response, we'll make things worse. And that's true... at least if we respond defensively and especially if we get angry in response.

But still... maybe instead of always being the one who is "more rational than thou" when the other person is upset, maybe sometimes in some scenarios it would help to at first be a little less calm in response. (Not angry at the person who's complaining--that definitely WOULD make things much worse.)

But there is another aspect of this that Linda also uses at times, and it goes beyond rapport and into something a little stranger (and deliciously tempting). I am NOT suggesting that this is a good, useful, ethical idea for people, but I'll mention it anyway because I think it's both funny and--with horses--seems to work. The idea is that you not only match the horse in "craziness", but even exceed him in some cases by just acting even MORE crazy (not angry or aggressive, just nuts)... so that the horse thinks, "Geez... I was scared but THIS human is crazy. I'm going to back away slowly and..." So with this approach, the horse calms himself down because you gave him something new to think about ("how can I get HER to stop being so crazy?") and that breaks his emotional pattern.

Just think about it... imagine what would happen if someone "goes off on you" and rather than reacting in a purely calm and rational way (or getting angry), you just suddenly act completely nuts. ; )

Posted by Kathy on September 18, 2005 | Permalink


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Wait? You mean it's not natural to emulate the other person's emotion and attitude?

I've been dealing with this situation all wrong!

Posted by: Daniel Nicolas | Sep 19, 2005 12:55:14 AM

Sharon Drew Morgen (http://www.newsalesparadigm.com/) recommends similar behaviour during the sales process - she calls it mirroring, or getting into rapport. She prefers to facilitate buying on the phone and is impressive to watch when she does it and how she both responds to the pace and tone of voice.

When you call someone, you can judge a lot by how they answer the phone - how stressed or otherwise they are etc. If they bark a quick "Yes?!", and you start a long slowly paced intro, you will get nowhere. At least match their pace and offer to call back some other time.


Posted by: Robert Cowham | Sep 19, 2005 1:09:25 AM

I prefer to act completely nuts. Then anyone selling me crap leaves me completely alone.

Posted by: luckyrucksack | Sep 19, 2005 1:28:33 AM

Chup chup! I like to rattle off on Intelligent Design to anyone who calls me selling me crap.

Posted by: Nippy Gippers | Sep 19, 2005 1:34:26 AM

Funny, it just occured to me I've been doing something like this on customer support calls:

See, the phone rings, on the other side is a customer being very annoyed with some stupit bug in a (computer) program I wrote.
Most often I'm getting upset about the program, too ('*What* is it doing? I hate this buggy program, we really should throw it out and start anew' or something along these lines).

I never thought about this, but usually it works very well for me, nearly all times the customer calmed down very fast and we have been able to talk normal about the problem and possible fixes.

Posted by: Sam | Sep 19, 2005 1:39:55 AM

I guess this is what I used to do when dealing with customer emails. I didn't get hysterical, but I was almost as upset as the customer about whatever stupidity they were suffering through (software bugs, poor service), and let them see that (without quite insulting my colleagues, company, or our products... it was a very fine line to walk). This got really good response from most people as they felt it was me and them against the bad guys, and they liked that a company insider was on their side. It didn't make me terribly popular with the company, however.

Posted by: Deirdre' Straughan | Sep 19, 2005 2:24:15 AM

I am not sure, if this technique is effective with human beings. It sure works fine with horses, cows etc.
But, I think the best strategy is to be cool and calm when everybody around you are losing theirs.

Instead of trying to talk to them, or makin them see your point of view, you just stay calm and let the other person release his/her frustration.

It is true that the other person will be frustrated, when he finds you relaxed, when he is so fired up. But, later when he looks back upon it, he will respect you for not being "out of control", like he was.

Posted by: Anup | Sep 19, 2005 2:35:54 AM

Saying "chill" to someone probably acts to suggest that their fear is unwarranted, which might escalate matters. The key thing here is that people who are frightened need to feel they're being believed. Whether mirroring panic works or not for that I don't know, but I could just as easily imagine it making things worse, as better. But I do find it helpful to let people vent in these situations. That allows them to feel like they're being taken seriously and listened to. When they're done then you can help.

Posted by: Bill de hÓra | Sep 19, 2005 3:38:02 AM

It's actually one of the basic techniques of NLP.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Sep 19, 2005 4:01:37 AM

I don't really like "mirroring". I do the "cool and calm" thing which is my typical demeanor and just try to listen and understand. Empathic listening seems to be about compassion; mirroring seems to be about manipulation.

Posted by: Jason Yip | Sep 19, 2005 6:15:58 AM

I use this technique on my 3 year old son all the time. When he's freaking out (angry) trying to hug him or talk in a soothing voice doesn't work. But saying something random like "I AM THE MAGOOGOO MONSTER, ROAR!!!" has decent odds of making him radically shift his mood, especially if you keep at it.

When he's sad more than angry he still needs the soothing though.

Posted by: Ben Brophy | Sep 19, 2005 7:04:26 AM

When my wife was near-panic at our wedding, I didn't tell her to calm down, but I was calm and addressed her concerns (delegating flowers and decorating activities to my mother). She said my calmness helped her calm down.

Posted by: keith ray | Sep 19, 2005 8:05:44 AM

Strangely enough, I was in a seminar just last week where we started talking about just that. The consensus was that starting with "chill out" is probably the worst thing to do, and going all boinkers is kinda unpractical. The thing to do would be to start by saying, with feeling, that you completely understand how they are feeling, you'd be as pissed off in their position (if not more) -- because, face it, you would -- and then asking them how we could correct the situation. All in a calm manner. They'll feel listened to, and appreciated.
"Chill out", for someone angry, rings like "I don't care and I'm not listening". Being calm while empathizing has way better odds of working.

Posted by: Marc André | Sep 19, 2005 8:22:48 AM

Sex (ok lovemaking) is an amazing pacifier too. :-) I kid you not!

Posted by: Tarry | Sep 19, 2005 8:24:55 AM

I didn't get hysterical, but I was almost as upset as the customer about whatever stupidity they were suffering through (software bugs, poor service), and let them see that (without quite insulting my colleagues, company, or our products... it was a very fine line to walk).

This is what I was going to say too. At several places I've worked, all the "angry customer" calls were funneled to me because I had a knack for calming people down. I would listen quietly to what they said, empathize with them without any of the usual trite "I feel your pain" psychobabble but rather validating their specific gripes and assuring them that I would be angry too if I were in their situation, and then proposing a solution. I followed up with them as soon as I could; even if the situation wasn't resolved yet I would call them every day or two to let them know what was happening and when we might expect a resolution.

This worked every time. In most cases I was not the instigator of the problem; most of these people would first call to yell at someone else in the company, sometimes the receptionist (who always put such calls through to me) or one of the other staff people.

Posted by: Brad | Sep 19, 2005 9:04:07 AM

This is a basic technique in neurolinguistic terapy. They call it pacing (http://rapport.nlp-hypnosis.ws/rapport_building.html )

Posted by: Paulo Eduardo Neves | Sep 19, 2005 10:25:10 AM

I too can testify that getting angry on the customer's behalf works beautifully. That is, if Helen calls up mad because thing X won't work, and thing X genuinely is a piece of junk, your best tactic is to wholeheartedly agree, find out exactly what they are trying to do and why it is not working, and then helping as much as you can.

When there's a problem that's inside your department, or that involves one of your own people, your best approach is to let them vent, be sympathetic, take responsibility and blame if appropriate, but also show how person or group Y is only human, and what perfectly reasonable things could have caused some of the difficulties. Putting on the we-can-do-no-wrong mask is the absolute worst tactic.

Of course, most companies, and especially callcenters:
- enforce the we-can-do-no-wrong mask approach.
- do not provide useful means for customer service staff to suggest useful change to the thing supported, or to the support procedures.
- do not give customer service staff enough power to do much useful.

Posted by: Bronwyn | Sep 19, 2005 10:42:20 AM

That's amazing, it all makes sense to me. I'm actually an extremly calm and controlled person, which can make angry people totally freak out.

Posted by: Richard | Sep 19, 2005 11:20:30 AM

That technique works great in sales. I heard it referred to as "Mirroring.". Basically, the sales person's job was to mimic as much about the customer as possible including:
tone of voice

People identify better with a person the more that person is like themselves. For example, most people will (initially) trust someone who speaks their language more than someone who speaks a different language. Think about the people that are your close friends ... I'm sure they have a lot more in common with you than people who aren't your friends, no?

Posted by: BB | Sep 19, 2005 12:37:48 PM

"It's actually one of the basic techniques of NLP."

"This is a basic technique in neurolinguistic terapy."

True, but, giving credit to NLP founders, Bandler and Grinder, for these ideas is akin to believiing that Microsoft invented the personal computer. They took most their ideas from the great hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson http://www.erickson-foundation.org/.

Here's a brief bio: http://www.uncommon-knowledge.co.uk/milton_erickson.html

Posted by: Gary Bloom | Sep 19, 2005 6:05:04 PM

I remember Tony Robbins talking about this -- he said that to defuse a conflict situation sometimes the best strategy is to do something completely nuts (but not dangerous) to make the other person laugh or just break their mental state.

Consequently I've started swearing profusely back in deep Aussie strine at customers who contact me with a complaint (only kidding!!! {smile})

Posted by: Lee | Sep 19, 2005 8:14:43 PM

I concur with several other commentators who propose taking the calm approach; Ghandi's invitation to "be the peace you want to see in the world" comes to mind. I believe that what often triggers or exacerbates anger is advice-giving, whether that advice is offered in calm or anger. There is a big difference between spouting off to someone who is at peace with him or herself and the world and spouting off to someone who is telling _you_ to be at peace with yourself and the world. I'm reminded of the prohibition against advice-giving in many 12-step programs, where one is instead encouraged to share one's own experience, strength and hope ... and modeling is often a more effective way of sharing this than talking about it.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 19, 2005 11:45:35 PM

Well, I'm a couple of days late to this party, but I would like to add that in my experience (tech support at a law firm) when people are freaking out it's because they think no one is listening to them/hearing them. So if you can give them the impression that you're actually paying attenntion to them, it goes a long way towards calming them down - regardless of whether your own demeanor is calm or strident or something else.

That being said, I find that staying calm helps me to deal with finding a solution to whatever the actual problem is.

Posted by: klpage | Sep 21, 2005 12:46:58 PM

Again, there is no silver bullet. It compeletely depends on the person and the situation. Some people only feel like they are being heard if you have an emotional reaction to what they are saying, to get a bit agitated like they are. Others need a calming influence. People are complicated and varied, start by listening, and then try different approaches if your initial one doesn't work.

Posted by: sloan | Sep 21, 2005 2:22:25 PM

Me and my wife have argued about the meaning of "right brain". Please, could somebody explain what's refered here.

Posted by: Ned | Sep 22, 2005 1:14:54 AM

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