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 rock star colleagues ran into some issues on her part of the project after some difficulty with another team. Those frustrations are mounting. Her voice rises as she’s relaying her latest roadblock she’s encountered. Now, you’re concerned that she might have a meltdown in the wrong place, at the wrong time, undoing all the great reputation building she’s done.
Not wanting her to embarrass herself, you pull her aside and beseech her to “calm down.”
One look at her 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 her already-roaring fire.
“Calm down? Calm down? Don’t tell me to calm down!” she practically yells.
Now she’s not just mad about the day, she’s 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 to help process the residue of an unruly workday, she probably feels 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 re-do, 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 she really wants is to be heard. So let her know you’re listening.
“I’m here for you. Let's go to the break room/go for a walk and grab a coffee and you can tell me what’s going on. I’ve been there, so no judgments."
Let her know you’re sharing her pain. Being able to express empathy for another person is a soft skill absolutely worth learning. Empathy says you what she’s 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 her colleague’s office and demand that she 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.
Breathing techniques have been proven to help dissipate stress and restore calm to our bodies. Offering to do it together invites you to share her stress. After she’s vented, say, “Let’s take three deep breaths together.” Maybe you burst out laughing at the end, or maybe it really relaxes her (and you). The point is to offer to work with her 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.