Keep Calm and Carry On. We see this phrase marketed on T-shirts, mugs and stickers in a variety of different variations, but where does it come from? “Keep Calm and Carry On” was a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The poster was intended to raise the morale of the British public, threatened with widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities. Every day we are vulnerable to attacks, too, and they can fall from the sky when we least expect them. What can we do? It is natural to mirror the bad behavior coming in your direction versus reflecting the exact opposite. Keeping calm is hard to do when you are under verbal attack, which is why you have to be intentional about it. Whether it is coming from your boss, client, co-worker or partner, here are some ways to communicate calm during unexpected verbal attacks.
Hear the Person Out
In heated arguments it can be really irritating when you do not feel like anyone is listening to you. Knowing how this feels avoid interrupting and hear the person out. Many people who escalate a conversation are upset that their concerns are not being heard. A person may feel ignored or invalidated, which can lead to resentment and anger. To truly understand the root cause of the problem, you must listen to another person’s perspective even if you are not sure you agree. The key to deescalating any situation is to let a person voice his or her concerns so that you can work together to arrive at a solution. Everyone wants to be heard. When you provide a safe place for someone to speak, you can create a calmer mood and hopefully find a resolution that will be beneficial to all.
Can you listen without reacting? If the person is angry with you, it may be difficult, but try to not take it personally. If the individual is angry with someone else and you are trying to intervene, do your best to avoid taking sides or jumping to conclusions. No matter the nature of the conflict, taking a calm, unbiased approach will help you decide how to proceed in a way that benefits everyone. Recognize that the person who is upset is speaking from an emotional place, and most likely does not mean it the way you are hearing it. Getting defensive or angry could only escalate things. Think before you speak and choose your words carefully. Avoid using any judgmental language. Let the person speak their mind without fear of retribution. Keep repeating to yourself that it is not really about you and that there is something more to the situation. When you depersonalize the attacks you can help the aggressor get to the bottom of his or her issues without putting yourself in the way.
Determine the Root Cause
Before you go too far with an argument, determine the root cause. It is natural to feel reactive with an argumentative person, fighting him or her at every turn, but instead of defending yourself, be more curious about what is causing the person to be so upset. Mentally step back and ask: Why is this person upset? What triggered it? Are there other factors in play that do not involve me that are contributing to the problem? How do others treat this person? Be curious about the problem and when the timing is right, which may not be during the argument, ask: “How was the rest of your day?” or “Did something happen on your way here today?” By assuming you are not the main factor and trying to understand the root cause of the problem, you can determine what needs to be done to resolve the conflict.
Find Something to Sympathize With
It is possible that the person may not be upset with you, but rather upset with themselves. To find out, find something to sympathize with. For example, you may say, “I’m sorry that happened. I understand that you must be very upset.” Finding something to sympathize with takes the target off your back and puts you and the enraged person in alignment with something else. Name that pain. Sympathize with that pain. Admit that you do not understand the pain. You may say, “I can’t imagine what you are going through right now, but it pains me to think that I am part of the problem. What can I do to change that and make this situation better for you?” Even if you know you are not the other person’s problem, serving up a response like this is sure to cool a heated argument down a notch.
Avoid Absorbing Responsibility
Sometimes when someone is mad at you the natural reaction is to absorb all the responsibility just to be done with the conflict. Before you spring into confession mode, wait for the other person to make the first move. If you are like many people, you may find yourself trying to fix whatever someone is screaming about; you may even apologize unnecessarily to try to get the person to calm down. Be careful not to fall into this trap. Instead, let the other person be responsible for what happens next. You might even say something like, “I would like to help you, but I need you to calm down first so I can understand the problem.” Some people just need to vent and let it all out before they know what they really want. If you spring into action too fast it could appear that you are the one to blame or you may spin your wheels on a solution that may never be utilized. Instead, ask clarification questions and be a good listener and then perhaps the upset person may sort it out on his or her own.
Use Neutral Body Language
I once knew someone who actually got fired for rolling her eyes at a client. What are your unconscious body language moves? You may be putting off signals you are not even aware of. Maybe you cross your arms when you get defensive or turn your back on others when you are trying to escape a situation. Practice neutrality and non-confrontational body language. Avoid crossing your arms, rolling your eyes, avoiding eye contact, or turning away from the person. This can convey irritation, resentment or disrespect, which could make the situation worse. Instead take a deep breath, sit down, tilt your head to the side or nod as the other person is speaking (or yelling) to show you are paying attention and absorbing what is being said. Ask for permission to speak if you cannot cut into the conversation naturally. Body language says more sometimes than the spoken word, so hold back on showing your real feelings until you can express your feedback in a collective, thoughtful and verbal way.
There is something about taking notes that can diffuse certain situations. Perhaps you are in a meeting with your boss, manager or a client, and you are having one of those meetings that makes your hair stick up on the back of your neck. They are not happy, and you cannot focus because you feel like you are in trouble. When this type of situation arises, ask if you can take notes. If you take notes, it will show that you are taking the matter under serious consideration and valuing the input. It will also center your focus in a heated situation, allowing yourself to take your eyes off the person and on to your notepad. Taking notes also gives you an opportunity to write questions that come to mind so you do not forget what to say. It can be challenging to cut in on a person spewing words in an angry way, so when he or she finally calms down, you will have the words you want to say, without any unconfident delays.
When All Else Fails, Excuse Yourself
Always trust your gut. If you do not feel comfortable you can excuse yourself and leave. No matter the circumstances of your situation, be it a boss, colleague or client, remember that if you feel unsafe or if you can tell the confrontation will not end peacefully or come to any sort of resolution, you have the right to disengage and leave. Make a mental list of why you deserve to be respected in any situation. You have to know why you deserve respect before you demand respect from others. Under fire, it is easy to feel like you are a nobody, especially when someone more powerful or more senior than you is trying to intimidate you. You do not have to endure this treatment. You have the right to protect yourself from physical, mental or emotional harm at all times, even if it is a boss, client or partner. Winning an argument sometimes means leaving. If you feel unsafe or your rights are being violated and you know it will not end well, tell the person you feel uncomfortable and you need to leave, or as I would always say, “I need to go to the restroom.” Then leave and if necessary, call for backup. Verbal abuse can be more damaging than physical abuse. It leaves no trace of evidence that anything happened to you and it can really mess with your self-confidence. Excusing yourself shows you are in control and it also sets a good example to others that verbal attacks and abuse should never be tolerated. NIE
Amy Summers launched Pitch Publicity in the face of a rapidly changing climate for communication and media relations in 2003. She has more than 20 years of experience working with major clients in natural health to increase visibility through national publicity exposure. “The Pitch with Amy Summers,” flash briefing went live in 2018 and quickly became one of the most highly ranked communications flash briefings on Amazon’s Alexa. After 500 consecutive episodes, Summers launched her second company, INICIVOX, in February 2020 to help individuals improve a wide-range of soft skills centered on the complexity of communications. Explore publicity opportunities: www.pitchpublicitynyc.com. Receive free daily pitch tips from “The Pitch with Amy Summers” flash briefing on Amazon’s Alexa, Google Play, iTunes, Spotify, Audible, Pandora and anywhere voice is heard: www.INICIVOX.com.