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How to Calm Strangers Who Are Stressed or Angry

Emotions are running high. Here's how to calm other people down.

engin akyurt/Unsplash
Source: engin akyurt/Unsplash

Yesterday, I had to go to a lab for some routine bloodwork. The lab was understaffed. The waiting room was full. People were waiting over an hour past their appointment times. To make matters worse, the new system allowing people to wait in their cars instead of inside the office seemed to be glitching. This resulted in several people thinking they were checked in for their appointments, but the staff had no record of them. The patients were stressed. The staff members were stressed. Several people waiting were in their 80s. Needless to say, no one wanted to be there in the middle of a pandemic.

Between COVID-19 and the summer heat, many of us are finding ourselves in public situations in which people are anxious and/or have frayed tempers. Here are some suggestions for how to help defuse others' emotions in these situations and help people calm down.

1. Be human. This is by far the most important tip I'll mention here. In stressful situations, people often stop seeing the humanity in the other people around them and lose sight of the fact we're all humans having a shared experience. Normally, when people are sitting in a waiting room, they rarely talk to strangers. While I was waiting for my blood test, several of us began to chat with each other (from our socially distant seating and all wearing masks). One of the couples there were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. A little bit of chat—and acknowledging we were all feeling vulnerable in the situation—helped a great deal.

When people express vulnerability, it tends to make other people's caring instinct kick in. Any type of human connection can help soothe frayed feelings. At the lab, one of the staff members mentioned that it was one of the most stressful days she had ever had at work. When she expressed this vulnerableness, it helped other people see her as human, rather than as a cog in a broken machine.

2. Tell someone they're doing a good job in a trying situation. A little bit of kindness can go a long way when someone is stressed. For example, you see a mother who is struggling with a crying child. Parents in this situation often feel like other people are staring at them and judging them negatively. Why not say, "You're doing a good job, Mama"? Occasionally this may be unwanted or taken the wrong way. However, it might also be the boost the person needs. And, it can help them realize other people are empathizing rather than judging.

Similarly, I told one of the blood-test technicians she was doing a good job. She instantly relaxed. Again, this was about treating her as a human. Everyone can relate to feeling stressed at work. This type of strategy might not always work, but it works often enough to make it worthwhile to try it.

3. Meet people's physical needs. When folks are struggling to cope with a stressful situation, it's much worse if they are hot, cold, or thirsty. Try to meet these needs for people if you can. For example, if you have a waiting room, put a fridge in it with bottles of cold water. Outside of COVID times, put out a bowl of apples or bananas for people who need some sugar. Even offering someone a stick of gum when they're stressed can help. The chewing sensation can be comforting.

4. Controlled anger is sometimes OK. Anger can be functional. Sometimes, expressing a degree of anger when you are taking control of a situation can help other people contain their emotions.

Occasionally other people feel so out of control they need someone else to put in a boundary to help them contain their feelings. If someone keeps pushing your boundaries, some sternness can help give them the message to back off. Initially, they might not appreciate it but you expressing some anger might cause them to retreat a bit. And, in turn, them retreating may allow them to calm themselves down.

5. Treat it as an art. Read others' emotional needs. Although it's possible to give some tips, defusing strong emotions requires you to read the other people involved. A strategy that works great in one scenario can backfire and escalate the conflict in another. Try making a small overture and see what reception you get. Use your body language and your tone to communicate your intentions as much as your words.

Obviously, it's not wise to stick your beak into every conflictual situation you come across. However, with good skills, in some situations, you can use yourself as a tool to help others manage stressful scenarios. We're all going through a lot during COVID-19, and we all have an emotional responsibility to each other to be as human as possible in our interactions.

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