How to be truly helpful to someone who’s upset
(Time to read: ~4 minutes)
“I can’t believe she lied about what happened in the meeting!” Jenna took a fierce bite out of her pickle and glared across the table at her friend Carol.
Carol had been hearing about this situation with Mary for months, and she had a pretty good idea about what was going on. She opened her mouth to share her advice, and then paused. Was that actually the best thing to do right now?
Across town, six-year-old Jeanette ran up to her mother yelling “Rob is being mean! He won’t let me play!”
Cathy could feel her anger rising. She had talked to Rob over and over again about playing nicely with his little sister. Her first impulse was to go in the other room, grab the game controller out of his hand and send him to his room. She took a deep breath. Being a parent was so much more difficult than it looked from the outside.
Our first impulse
Carol and Cathy illustrate three common first impulses when someone tells us they’re not happy about something:
- To give information or advice
- To take action to help them get what they want
- To distract them or change the subject.
All of these strategies can be useful – eventually. But they are not usually the best first step.
What’s really going on
When someone you care about is upset, it’s natural to feel upset yourself, because you want their needs to be met.
That upset stimulates a sense of urgency on an actual biological level. Your body thinks you’re under threat, and pressures you to take action to remove whatever is upsetting you – which in this case is the upset person in front of you.
You feel a sense of urgency to “fix” the situation, so the other person won’t be upset anymore and then you can relax too.
The problem is that when we’re upset, the creative part of our brain becomes less effective or may go “offline” all together, so we don’t tend to make the best choices about what to do.
The First Step
Cathy illustrated a great first step – taking a deep breath.
In fact, it’s great to take at least 3 deep breaths – because that
- Activates the “relaxation” side of your nervous system, which
- Turns down the dial on that sense of urgency, and
- Gives you access to more of your positive creativity, as well as
- Greater self-control and choice over your actions.
Pretty amazing, eh?
There’s more that can be done at this stage, but just this one simple action can help you to be more effective in helping yourself and the other person.
The Next Step
Now, back to your partner, child or friend. What can you do to best support them?
The key principle here is:
People need to be heard for what they’re feeling and thinking now before they can do anything else.
Whether that “anything else” is hearing your good advice, thinking about the other person’s perspective, or coming up with an effective action plan.
How Carol and Cathy Did It
Carol took those three deep breaths. And then she took a bunch more while Jenna continued to pour out her story. She noticed that Jenna’s speech gradually slowed and her anger dissolved.
Eventually Jenna said “I just really want to get along better with Mary.” Once the focus was on what she wanted, instead of what she didn’t like, together Carol and Jenna were able to come up with some ideas to help with that.
Across town, Cathy sat breathing deeply while Jeanette yelled and stamped her feet. When she sensed the time was right, Cathy started rubbing her daughter’s back. Eventually Jeanette snuggled up to her mother.
With the emotional storm over and both of them on “positive”, peaceful emotional ground, Cathy, Jeanette and eventually Rob were able to come up a way to share the game controller that they all felt satisfied with.
Making it a Habit to Respond in a Helpful Way
Over the last decade, it has become more and more clear to me that communication is simply a collection of habits. How we respond when someone is upset is just one of them.
What makes changing our communication habits especially hard is that there is often an emotional urgency to situations in which we want to communicate differently.
And when we’re experiencing that emotional urgency, the effective-thinking part of our brain goes partially or fully “offline”.
So a key first step in developing a new communication habit is to work with an emotionally-charged situation, but outside of the actual situation itself. This gives you the time and space to build the habit up to the point that it is strong and familiar enough to remain available and useful, even in those moments of stress and urgency.
That’s what I help people do:
- Know what are the most effective communication habits to develop
- Zero in on the ones that will make the biggest difference for you personally
- Practice those habits on situations that have an emotional urgency to them
– but (initially) outside of the stressful situations themselves,
until the habits are strong enough to be available and useful in your own real-life moments of stress – and you’re flying solo!
As a bonus, using these habits outside of stressful moments can help prevent conflict and stress from arising in the first place!