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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 More Helpful Things to Say to a Stressed-Out Person Than “Calm Down!”

frustrated person leaning over their desk

Your team is working on an exciting project that’s getting lots of visibility in your organization. And with that visibility comes a bit of pressure. One of your most impressive colleagues ran into some issues on their part of the project after some difficulty with another team. Those frustrations are mounting. Their voice rises as they’re relaying the latest roadblock they’ve encountered. Now, you’re concerned that they might have a meltdown in the wrong place, at the wrong time, undoing all the great reputation building they’ve done.

Not wanting them to embarrass themself, you pull them aside and beseech them to “calm down.”

One look at their expression, and you realize that telling an upset colleague to calm down wasn’t brilliant; in fact, you may have just thrown a little gasoline on their already-roaring fire.

“Calm down? Calm down? Don’t tell me to calm down!” they practically yell.

Now they’re not just mad about the day, they’re totally pissed off at you.

Unfortunately, these well-intentioned words don’t often go over well. Instead of the receiver hearing them as a caring attempt to help process an unruly workday, they probably feel dismissed.

Even though your intentions no doubt came from a helpful place, you’ve learned the hard way that telling someone to calm down usually backfires.

But if you had a redo, what could you have said or done instead? Ahead, four ideas that work a heck of a lot better than the patronizing “calm down.” Hopefully, you’ll be able to keep happy hour, well, happy.

1. Show You’re Listening

When your friend’s in that much pain during a bad day, what they really want is to be heard. So let them know you’re listening.

“I’m here for you. Let’s go to the break room/go for a walk and grab a coffee/hop on a private chat and you can tell me what’s going on. I’ve been there, so no judgments."

2. Empathize

Let them know you’re sharing their pain. Being able to express empathy for another person is a soft skill absolutely worth learning. Empathy says you what they’re going through, and that you want to help. Say, “You’re understandably upset right now, and I totally get why. Let’s see if we can figure out how to solve this together.”

3. Offer to Help

There may be nothing you can realistically do (you’re not going to march into their colleague’s office and demand that they apologize to your friend), but that doesn’t mean you can’t still offer to be of assistance. When you give support in the form of comfort and attention, you already are helping. And it’s OK to ask, “How can I help you right now?” even if there isn’t anything concrete you can do.

4. Breathe

Breathing techniques have been proven to help dissipate stress and restore calm to our bodies. After they’ve vented, say, “Let’s take three deep breaths together.” Maybe you burst out laughing at the end, or maybe it really relaxes them (and you). The point is to offer to work with them to get over the bad-day stress.

When someone’s upset and anxious, it can lead you to feeling uncomfortable or even annoyed. Though it can seem innocent to toss out a “calm down” to assuage your own discomfort, it’s not very helpful to your friend. When you can authentically let people know you share their pain, and give them your undivided attention to listen, they benefit from the human connection you offer in an otherwise difficult situation.