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Don't Tell Me to Calm Down - The Worst Advice to Give When Someone is Angry

When our brain senses that we are being threatened by a word, a gesture or even a micro expression on someone's face, something incredible happens that is completely outside of your control. Activity in the frontal parts of the brain where rational thought occurs is suppressed.

Don't Say - Don't Let Your Emotions Get In The Way

In the movie The Judge, Robert Downey Jnr is a high profile New York lawyer of ill repute. Back in his hometown he finds himself in a bar brawl and narrowly avoids having his teeth relocated by the local degenerate - thanks to his quick thinking and very smart observations of the said degenerate's parole status. Downey's character is perfectly calm, logical and confident throughout. Hostage negotiators, lawyers and actors are trained and rehearsed in this superhuman trait of not showing emotion in stressful situations. But what about the rest of us?

Why we say things we later regret

When our brain senses that we are being threatened by a word, a gesture or even a micro expression on someone's face, something incredible happens that is completely outside of your control. Activity in the frontal parts of the brain where rational thought occurs is suppressed. Can you see why we say things we later regret, or don't say things we should have said? It's our cognitive conditioning working against us.

At the same time, blood flow increases to our emotional circuitry and our instinctual hindbrain. This is the moment we become a warrior. It's also the moment we literally lose our ability to think clearly. It's physically impossible not to experience emotion at this point, but it is possible to manage the emotions that arise. Understanding this is the key to staying cool when agitated.

Tell tale signs in your body warn you when this is about to happen. You heat up, especially your face or neck, your heart rate speeds up a little or a lot. Your palms may get sweaty and you feel a burst of adrenaline, like a kick of energy flowing through you.

I had a coaching client who told me that once he felt this burst of energy during a conversation, there was no going back. He could not back down. It was as if the only thing that mattered from there on was the need to settle the conversation on his terms.

2. Don't Say - If She'd Said That To Me I'd Be Angry Too

Have you ever blamed someone else for making you angry? That idiot that cut you off in the traffic this morning, your teenage son who thinks curfew is only a suggestion or the incompetent salesperson at the end of an unhelpful helpline? Do I even need to mention your boss?

For most people getting angry feels good, the hormones that are released when we rage make us feel powerful. People stop and pay attention to us when we yell - unless we're the crazy on the street corner who yells all day at imaginary evils. More dangerously, stress hormones increase our risk tolerance. Making us more likely to do or say something foolish that we'll regret later - cue crimes of passion or football hooliganism.

Emotions are gone in 90 seconds

This initial bout of stress hormone (a chemical) burns up in 90 seconds. That's it. After that you have to choose to be angry to continue to be so. Thinking angry thoughts such as, how dare you say or do that? who does she think she is? will tell your brain to continue being angry and it will oblige with producing more stress hormone. If someone else ticks you off, you can blame them for how you feel in the first 90 seconds but how you respond to these feelings in your body is your choice alone.

Don't get me wrong, this is as easy to do as eating jelly with chopsticks. Take a breath, use a filler phrase that you can say in different situations such as, that's an interesting point of view or, I appreciate you sharing this with me, I hear what you're saying, do you really think that's appropriate behaviour? This tells your brain that you are not under physical threat and gives a you few precious seconds to think about how to respond as the first wave of stress hormone passes. Us coaches call this increasing your stimulus-response gap - and that's a good thing.

3. Don't say - Think Like A Hostage Negotiator And You'll Win Every Argument

This is popular advice from corporate trainers and bloggers. It's simply not possible that an 8 hour Sniper Mentality or Hostage Negotiator training program will turn anyone into a poker-faced boardroom negotiator. A hostage negotiator trains for years in the science of influence, mental agility and tactical combat. Even so, they don't win every argument.

There are two ideas from hostage negotiations that we are able to implement rather easily. The first is never to ever tell someone to calm down, that's like putting a fire out with gasoline. Instead, let them go on, for as long as possible, let them rant and rage. Fuming is hard work and requires a tremendous amount of physical resources. It won't be long till they stop and this is when you implement your strategy. What strategy?

Ask open questions such as Why do you think this has happened? This will get them thinking about your questions. Thinking forces blood back into their prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) helping them overcome fear and think a bit more logically.

4. Don't say - No-one Really Wins An Argument

Someone always wins an argument. Every argument will leave you changed. You can decide to brush it off as a bad experience or debrief it like you would an important client meeting.

I'm betting that the person who sits down and truly thinks about why they argue, what makes them angry, what they say and how they can be more constructive about it, is the winner. If neither one does this then my money is on the big guy.

Tremaine du Preez is a behavioural economist, author of Think Smart, Work Smarter, and lecturer in Critical Thinking. She blogs at and Her next book Raising Thinkers - Preparing Your Child For The Journey Of a Lifetime, will be out in 2016.