Most of us are pretty adept at dealing with our own emotions. We take a deep breath, we journal, we distract ourselves, or we speak our minds to another person. The difficult thing about our interactions with others is that we don’t have a lot of control over other people’s actions or emotions. When another person is angry or sad, we can’t just say, “Don’t be sad.” It doesn’t work that way.
To better understand how to interact with others who are expressing strong emotions, I interviewed Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family psychotherapist Tracy Santomarco to try to gain some insight. First of all, Ms. Santomarco turned conflict on its head for me within the first few minutes of our conversation.
She shared that people often express strong emotions toward others because what they are currently experiencing is reigniting the emotions and feelings of past unprocessed trauma — not because of the other person. She cited people who are caught on camera in situations where they seem to be inexplicably belligerent.
“Traumatic memories can also be triggered not only by what someone is saying or doing, but our senses can often bring up a past painful memory as well. A smell, sound, bodily sensation, taste, can instantly brings us back to that event and cause us to feel unsafe and often helpless. Our bodies and minds will then go into defense mode to try and protect us from the pain we experienced in our past.”
So, behind all of those Instagram videos you watch — the table flipping, the parking lot altercations, and yes, the Karens, might be a person reliving past trauma. Now, does that make their behavior okay? Absolutely not. But, it does give some insight into the seemingly irrational and unkind things we see people doing.
According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, “70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.” And that statistic reflects just one country on our large planet. So, if you happen to be one of the people that has been lucky enough to have had a lift that is trauma-free, you're likely in the minority.
Sadly, people treat each other poorly. People act out against each other. And, unfortunately, it can be cyclical. Hurt people . . . hurt people. So, I asked Ms. Santomarco what we can do when we are faced with the powerful emotions of another person. How do we deescalate the situation when someone is overwhelmed or coming at you with issues?
She listed three things that can be helpful in most situations (I’ll be sending this story to my husband as well, by the way):
Validate the other person’s feelings
Ms. Santomarco says that the easiest and most useful tool in deescalating a situation is to validate the other person’s feelings. You don’t have to agree with their behavior or even think that their behavior is okay, but one of the best ways to calm another human is to let the other person know you heard them by repeating what they said.
When we don’t feel heard by others, it takes us back to a moment in time when we were undeniably dependent on others because we were incapable of providing for our own needs. As infants, we had to be heard, seen, and tended to by our caregivers or we would perish.
If someone feels their emotions and needs are being dismissed, they can immediately return to this state. And what does a baby do when they don’t feel heard? They get louder and louder until someone recognizes what their emotions are trying to convey.
If a person lashes out at you, you can begin to diffuse the situation by responding with something like, “Wow, I understand that you’re angry because of what is [insert issue here].” This lets the other person know that you acknowledge their emotions, and are present and available to help them feel less helpless with their current needs.
Please note, this does not mean you agree their behavior is appropriate. According to Tracy, it is important to remember that everyone has the right to feel how they feel and you’re saying that you see and recognize that.
Don’t go into “fix it” mode
This one hit close to home for me. Many of us tend to want to fix other people’s problems. Heck, I would like to try to fix the actual people. I can tell you from personal experience that it never works. That’s also not wise in an escalated situation with another person.
If someone were to, say, rant about how much work they have to do before the end of the week, they are likely not looking for you to say something like, “Why don’t you hire a personal assistant?” It’s more likely that they’re looking for you to validate their feelings and offer emotional support, not give them a link to Upwork.
Ms. Santomarco says that while this trait is often attributed to men, it may be present in all genders. “Understandably, when we see that someone is upset, we just want to help them feel better. While offering a solution is met with the best of intentions, if someone’s feelings are not first validated, it often only intensifies their emotional reaction.”
Use “and” instead of “but,” “I” instead of “you”
When addressing another person, if you use the word “but” after validating their feelings, it can negate everything you said before it. The word “but” insinuates that you think that the other person is wrong. And, whether they are or they aren’t, insinuating that they are at fault will not work to deescalate the situation.
On the contrary, the word “and” works to both validate their feelings and open up the conversation between you and another person. You’re essentially saying that both of these things can exist.
Similarly, people tend to get defensive when they hear statements that start with the word you: “You never empty the dishwasher.” “You’re making me feel like I’m invisible.” These can make people feel as if they need to defend themselves.
Instead, try starting your sentences with “I” and share how you are feeling. Remember, we all have the right to our feelings. “I would like some more help emptying the dishwasher from time to time.” “I feel unseen when you come home from work and I really would enjoy it if we talked more.”
These simple alterations in word choice can completely change the dynamic of a situation and set up a stage for clearer and less emotional communication.
Ms. Santomarco says, “The reason why we’re very activated and upset is that we feel stuck, so if you give that person a sense of choice and control like they’re going to be okay, that can diffuse the situation.”
For instance, “I see that what I did right there upset you and I’m wondering what I can do to make you feel better.” Giving the person the option to let you know how you can help them makes them feel a little less stuck and might help engender a more calm state.
Oftentimes, even when you give them the option, a person won’t be able to let you know how to help them. At this point, you can offer choices. Again, choices help free up people who are feeling stuck and upset. So, if a person doesn’t know how you can help them, you can say, “Would you like me to give you some suggestions?”
If the person you’re speaking to says yes, that’s great! According to Ms. Santomarco, “In saying yes, it opens up that person’s heart and mind to saying more yes.” And, if that person says that they’re willing to let you give some suggestions, you can offer up two or three choices.
Here’s an example: You can a person who expresses that they don’t know how you can help them if you can offer suggestions. If they respond in the affirmative, then try something like, “Would you like to stay here and talk this through with me or go back to your car?”
Choices empower the person to choose a more appropriate response to the situation. They also empower you to lay some parameters around the situation. Which brings us to the last point:
You are in charge of yourself and how you relate to situations. At the end of the day, you can try to diffuse a situation, but you can’t make anyone do anything . . . except yourself. The most important thing to do in any situation is to set boundaries.
Ms. Santomarco says, “Learning to set boundaries is very difficult. A lot of times, people will learn to bend and hide their feelings or tiptoe around emotions because they don’t want to upset the other person. However, boundaries are important for everyone.” Boundaries are often not effective unless there is a consequence for crossing them.
Boundaries and consequences are often stated as an if/then statement and can be as small as, “If you don’t put your clothes in the laundry hamper, I will leave them on the floor.” They could also be as large as, “If you speak to me in that way again, I will walk away from this situation.”
If people’s boundaries have been violated in the past, it’s harder for them to set them in a current situation. Ms. Santomarco suggests practicing setting boundaries. Going to a local market and saying no to a salesperson or turning down invitations to social events are good ways to practice.
None of us can crawl into another person’s brain to understand why they do what they do. When you encounter people with extreme emotions, keep a level head and understand that . . . you don’t know what you don’t know. An angry person could have a sick child at home. An aggressive driver could have just lost their job. Or, that belligerent shopper could be reliving past trauma.
The goal is to find a balance between protecting yourself by setting boundaries and diffusing situations by validating others’ feelings, choosing your words wisely, and offering them choices for how to proceed with the situation.
***Tracy Santomarco, LMFT is a psychotherapist from Los Angeles who transitioned into the field of trauma therapy after a 25-year career as a TV producer.***