Staying Calm

… targets of abuse can themselves play significant roles in shaping the terrain of conflict and thus lessen their vulnerability through creative, intelligent, and supple reactions.1

The Scene

Let’s pick an occupation. It can be anything,2 but here we’ll say you work at the front desk of a medical clinic. In this waiting room environment patients sit in various locations at differing levels of personal anxiety. Some are stressed about the possibilities of their medical condition; others are simply irritated they have to wait.

One patient, a large, intimidating individual, decides he’s had enough. He comes to your work station, towers over you, inches closer and closer, uses menacing body language, glares and begins to demand you do something.

You know this isn’t going right. You want to be calm and empathetic, but every effort at positive emotional labour3 suffers. From the corner of your eye you see people watching for your reaction. You start to feel confined. You begin to cower. Your intimidator senses this and presses on even more aggressively. Your mouth dries. You sweat. Panic sets in. “How do I deal with this?” you ask yourself. You want to cry for help!

Techniques To Consider

This could happen in any work environment. Sometimes in public settings, other times in scary private encounters. When it does, try the following ten techniques.

In the heat of any moment when confronted by intimidating people:

  1. Protect yourself first. If the person is menacing to the point where they could potentially damage you (physically or emotionally), others or themselves, look for the easiest and quickest way out. Then seek help. Call security.
  2. Recognize and accept your emotions. You are likely scared about the situation, embarrassed in the location, nervous about responding and anxious about the consequences. This is all normal – so accept it.
  3. Take a few deep breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing will help you get centred and reduces the stress. It also buys you a bit of time so you can regain some sense of control and choose your responses.
  4. Visualize yourself. Can you can see yourself as calm, cool and collected? Who do you know that embodies these traits? Now imagine you are like them.
  5. Stop, think, and then speak. Remind yourself of the importance of maintaining your control, and remember to deal with the emotion first. “Sir, I’m really uncomfortable right now,” is likely the most appropriate thing to say first. Nothing can be done to mitigate the tension until the aggression is dealt with calmly. (Believe it or not most bullies can not distinguish between aggression and assertion,4 and when alerted to their behaviour usually back off, often apologetically.)
  6. Consciously lower your voice. Yelling will only make the situation worse. You may get more angry, terrified or frustrated and the other person may escalate the intensity of their responses. Instead, initially match their volume, then gradually soften your tone. This technique is referred to as mirroring.
  7. Avoid hyperbole. Resist the temptation to blow something out of proportion with exaggerations or hostile language. Avoid using harsh conditional or absolute words like “if you really,” “always,” and “never” when talking about yourself (this is victim language) or others (this is accusatory language).
  8. Eliminate meaningless intensives. Swearing is the most common form of meaningless intensive. Swear words are often seen as offensive or obscene and never add anything to the content of a conversation. They only increase its emotional intensity. Regardless of your personal tolerance level for swearing it is best to tune it out when listening to the intimidator and to drop it from your verbal communications.
  9. Distract yourself. Is there any way you can laugh about the situation without trivializing the importance of the other person? Ask yourself about the real significance of the situation that triggered your response. It is often more important for you to model a healthy approach to stress than it is to win certain battles.
  10. Reinforce your respect. Do this for the other person and for yourself. Afterward, retreat and assess the way you handled the situation (without obsessing about it). How will you handle it the next time?

 

A couple of extra thoughts. First, many people avoid aggressive people, deferring to the wisdom of the Desiderata and determining it best to “avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”5 This can not always be done.

Second, calming ourselves in the face of aggression is never easy and can’t readily be learned from reading a simple list of techniques. The real learning comes from our experiences.

Originally written on April 30, 2015

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  1. Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. p. 147.
  2. … any discussion for that matter in any environment, be it private or public, relationship or transactional.
  3. Emotional labour refers to a subjective form of effort where a person regulates what they are expected to emotionally display in the context of their job requirements and their organization’s goals.
  4. Assertive people never leave anyone worse off than they found them, including themselves. They include people in their interactions. Aggressive people draw adversarial attention at the expense of others and even themselves as they leave their encounters with damaged relationships.
  5. Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, 1927. See http://www.cs.columbia.edu/gongsu/desideratatextonly.html

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