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De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less


There’s an angry person standing in front of you, and you want to help them with their problem – but you can’t. You can’t not because you’re incapable of solving their problem, but instead because they won’t let you. They can’t get past their anger to let you work with them to solve the problem. This is the heart of the problem that De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less discusses. There are plenty of conflict resolution approaches that seek to understand the problem and create a collaborative approach to creating solutions. What De-Escalate addresses is the critical first step of diffusing the emotions.

Emotional Invalidation

We all just want to be understood. Our basic human need for connection cannot be overstated. (See The Dance of Connection if you want to know more about this need.) As much as a person who is emotionally agitated wants their agitation to go away, the thing they need more urgently is to feel like they’re understood. Unfortunately, we often start working with an emotionally-agitated individual by telling them – in effect – their emotions are wrong.

We confront the angry person and tell them there’s no need to be angry. This is telling them that we don’t understand them, and they’re “wrong.” As a result, we increase their agitation, because they’re not understood. Now they’re angry at us, because we’re telling them that their feelings are wrong.

All Feelings are OK

One of the things that’s important to understand about other people’s feelings – and our own – is that all feelings are OK (See Parent Effectiveness Training for more on feelings being OK). While not all actions are acceptable, all feelings are. Our feelings are a part of us. There is something that we’ve experienced that triggered the feelings either in the moment or through a combination of things in our past and the current situation that has come together to make our feelings.

Buddhists believe that feelings aren’t good or bad. They describe feelings – or emotions – as either afflictive or non-afflictive. That is, the feelings either harm you, or they do not. It might interest you to know that anger is not necessarily an afflictive emotion. It’s certainly a powerful emotion, but, when harnessed correctly, it can be a powerful force for change (see Emotional Awareness for more on afflictive/non-afflictive emotions).

Emotional Validation

At the heart of the process that Doug Noll lays out in the De-Escalate book is the process of affect labeling. Affect labeling is telling the other person what they’re feeling. Noll is critical of the advice that many of us have been given to use “I” statements not “you” statements in a heated discussion. (See Crucial Conversations for other ideas for how to handle difficult conversations.) In follow-up correspondence with Noll, I believe that he’s making strong statements in the book to cause people to project their desire to understand the other person and not water down things so much that the other person can’t see you’re attempting to identify their emotions.

Noll quotes some research by Dr. Lieberman, whose research, he says, indicates that labeling the other person’s emotion causes them to have a lower amygdala response and better prefrontal cortex control (PFC). The problem is that Dr. Lieberman’s research doesn’t say this. In reading it, the research says that, if a subject can label what they’re seeing, they themselves will have better PFC control. The research says nothing of the person being labeled. (In the research, they were labeling emotions they saw in pictures.) Normally, this would cause me to discount an author completely, because I hate it when authors draw conclusions that the research doesn’t support. However, in this case, I think there’s middle ground.

First, I recognize that we’re all emotionally-driven, no matter how much we want to believe that we’re rational. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Predictably Irrational for more.) I know that the techniques we use for non-emotionally-charged conflict resolution and problem solving are fundamentally based on creating understanding – and thereby connection. Active listening is a skill designed to ensure that what is being heard is what the speaker means. (See Motivational InterviewingParent Effectiveness Training, and A Way of Being for more on active listening.) So it only makes sense that reflecting – and clarifying – emotion should have the same effect on emotionally-charged individuals.

Second, I played with it. I tried some situations that I could normally work through, but I tried it by reflecting and validating the emotion – before or in addition to the content of the message. The result was quicker resolution than other techniques that don’t acknowledge the emotion first. Motivational Interviewing describes an approach of open questions, affirming, reflection, and summarization. This technique is normally focused on the content of the conversation – but it works well when focused on the emotional context as well.

I and You

Ultimately, as I was experimenting with the technique, I found that I needed to not be blunt about what I thought the other person was feeling. Instead of “you are feeling angry,” I’d say something like, “It seems like you’re angry.” This way, they should feel free to correct me – and I wasn’t telling them that I knew what they were feeling better than they did. The result was having the other person correct me – not always gently. That was great, because it helped me to understand the emotional context and allowed them to feel like I was really listening.

With a few of the folks that I experimented with, I realized that I was helping them to articulate how they were feeling. They were able to evaluate my statement and acknowledge that this was their feeling – even if they couldn’t put a word to it.

Emotional Intelligence

In reviewing the situation, it seems like folks who have lower emotional intelligence – and particularly self-awareness – were more open to me labeling them, and I could be more direct. However, people like myself, who are more highly aware, bristled if I got too direct. (See Emotional Intelligence for more about what emotional intelligence is.) Over the years, I’ve had to say to some others that I get to feel my feelings – they don’t. I can feel annoyed – but they can’t tell me that I feel annoyed if I don’t.

In the end, the key is sensitivity to communicating your perception of the other person’s feelings – and giving them an open door to tell you that you’re wrong. You can be wrong as long as the other person feels like you’re listening.

Just Stop Listening

Noll also includes advice to not listen to the words the other person is speaking. Only listen to the emotions they’re conveying. While I wholeheartedly understand the factors that Noll is concerned with, I believe that the approach is sort of like “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Noll’s concerns are that you’ll be overwhelmed with processing the words and the emotion and that you’ll get triggered. Both are valid concerns – but, in my opinion not sufficient to stop listening.

Overloading Processing

There’s a fixed capacity for our brain to consume glucose and process information. (See The Rise of Superman for more.) Much of what our brain is designed to do is filter and simplify information. (See The Paradox of Choice and Predictably Irrational.) However, despite these truths, the idea that you shouldn’t listen to the words that people are saying because you’ll be overloaded processing that and the emotion doesn’t hold true to the neurology. The Tell-Tale Brain walks through the verbal processing centers of the brain and how language is processed in the brain. However, emotional context is – almost exclusively – processed in other areas of the brain.

One of the observations about people in the mental state of flow is that there are areas of their brain that are more or less shut down to enable higher capacity in the areas that are demanded by flow. (See Finding Flow and Flow for more.) However, people rarely enter flow when engaged in a conversation. It’s not hard to understand why when you see the need for a small gap between capacity and current skill to drive the growth that flow provides – and the fact that our brains process somewhere between 450-600 words per minute and the spoken word is generally spoken in the 150 words per minute range.

In short, when someone else is talking, we’ve got plenty of capacity to process what they’re saying – and do other things. The key when someone else is speaking isn’t getting enough processing done. The key is staying focused on the right thing and not getting distracted by our own insecurities or triggered into emotional flooding ourselves.

Not Getting Triggered

It’s much easier to say “don’t get triggered” than to live it out. Hurting people hurt people. When faced with an agitated person, you’re facing someone who is psychologically hurting. They’re likely to say mean and awful things about you. They may be true, partially true, or complete fiction. No matter what they are, you must keep from becoming wrapped up in the emotions that these verbal barbs might trigger.

Noll’s suggestion is good in the sense that, if you can’t hear the words, then you can’t process them and get triggered. However, there’s a lot of neuroscience that says that what’s happening consciously and what is happening unconsciously can be – and often are – two different things. Just because you’re consciously ignoring the words doesn’t mean that your unconscious is. Unfortunately, it’s the unconscious that triggers the emotional response. Being triggered is all about emotions.

I believe that the key issue is the perception of safety. If you feel like you’re safe – both physically and emotionally/psychologically – then you’re not likely to react to even vile language hurled at you. (To understand safety, I’d suggest Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order and my post Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.) So, for me, the issue of not getting triggered is less about ignoring the words and more about putting them in the proper context. If you can evaluate the context of the words and whether they’re really threatening to your safety, you have a better chance of staying centered.

Staying Centered

Unless you’ve studied martial arts, you’re likely to not know what “staying centered” means. After all, how can you stay centered emotionally? The answer relies on the idea of balance and of interacting with the world. When your body is physically centered (or rooted), it takes quite a bit to knock you off balance. When you’re aware of the center of gravity of your body and where your limbs are, you don’t need to be so concerned with whether an attack will knock you down. In many martial arts forms, the ability to remain centered allows you to deflect or transform an attacker’s energy in a way that prevents that energy from harming you.

This is the same perspective on emotional centeredness. The verbal attacks don’t disrupt your perspective of yourself, the situation, or the person launching the attack. You can attend to it in a detached kind of way, knowing that you’re relatively safe no matter what happens.

This is the key to de-escalating a conflict. You can’t pour your gasoline on a fire that you’re trying to put out.

The Truth in the Conflict

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this review explaining where I disagree with Noll (and supporting that with references). However, the truth is that my disagreements with Noll are a matter of degree. De-Escalate is a solid framework for de-escalating conflict, so that you can move forward to improving understanding, finding options, and, finally, solving the problem at the core of the conflict. While I disagree on the precise approaches he outlines in the book, I agree with the concerns and the concepts. As I followed up with him via email, I realized that there is a subtlety and an understanding of the need to adapt his hard-fast rules into something usable for every day. We disagree less about objectives and factors – we disagree about precisely how to accomplish them.

It’s a fitting thing for two folks that preach conflict resolution. We understand each other and can accept where the other person has a valid point – even without accepting it as ours. Hopefully you can De-Escalate conflict and build understanding with everyone you encounter.