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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The One Question

When someone you know is upset, here’s the question you need to ask first to help them the most. 

One fine way to ring in the new year is to make a resolution to handle sadness and anger better. This includes your own emotions as well as those of people around you. There’s plenty of research to help guide us, whether we’re dealing with a grandchild, a spouse, an adult child or a friend. 

It’s easy to assume it’s the other person’s responsibility to get it together, but how we react can make a big difference in how well the situation is resolved. In other words, we have the power to do a lot of good. 

The Question to Solve Upsets

One tried and true method is to ask a loved one who is upset a defining question: Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged? Everyone handles emotion differently and may need a different response depending on if they’re anxious (advice may be wanted) or angry. Helping them define what they need in a particular situation is empowering. 
  • Helped. This person is asking you to give advice about how to handle a situation. 
  • Heard. Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen and nod.
  • Hugged. There are times when healing commences best with a quiet hug.

When in Danger, Protect Yourself

There may be times when you feel unsafe around someone who’s mad. The first thing to do is ensure your own safety. Go to a neighbor’s house, ask the other person to leave, call a friend or the police. 

If you are being abused, have a bag ready to go with a change of clothes and basic toiletries. The national domestic abuse hotline is 800-799-7233. You can also text START to 88788 to connect to someone who can help. You can visit the website which also gives directions on how to clear your browser history in case someone is monitoring your computer.

All too often, many of us jump to giving advice when all the person really wants is validation. One study found that phrases communicating empathy and understanding are especially comforting. Simple phrases such as “I understand why you feel that way” or “That must have been very hard” are powerful tools to soothe hurt and anger. 

Helping others understand that things will improve with time, known as temporal feedback, is also very useful, research  suggests. Ask the person how their feelings might change in a month, for example. “Different strategies meet different needs,” said Karen Niven, a professor of organizational psychology at the Sheffield University Management School in Britain who studies how what people say and do affects the emotions of others.

A growing body of evidence suggests that people want to talk about what’s bothering them. We’re social animals, and we care about what other people think. Just be sure to ask “Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?” before diving into the problem, and start with validating phrases.

How to Handle Anger

Sometimes, we all have to deal with someone who is angry, whether they are mildly upset or boiling mad. Here again, we often have the power to make a bad situation better by how we react. A few tips for dealing with angry people follow:
  • Remain calm. Your first impulse is likely to get upset, but keeping calm and steady is much more helpful.
  • Listen to the other person. Many times, just allowing someone to vent can help diffuse their anger. If you’re able, use validating phrases. Don’t tell them to calm down or that they shouldn’t be upset – this can trigger more anger. 
  • Give them room. Do they need time away from you to think through the problem? You may be the one who needs to physically leave the space. This is often better than escalating a conversation into a shouting match.
  • Set boundaries. Conversations should occur ahead of time, if possible, about how someone can talk to you and behave around you. Set limits and stick to them. 

A landmark study from 2012 listened in on customer service calls to find out what responses inflamed unhappy consumers and which ones helped to calm them down. It turned out that telling them to “calm down” or “relax” just made them angrier. It’s sending the message that they’re overreacting. 

Recent research asked people what words they would find most comforting. Once again, validating phrases were preferred. Participants wanted to hear “I can imagine that was difficult” much more than “Try to see both sides of the situation”.

“When people hear you and they say they understand you, you feel trusted, you feel cared for, you feel connected,” says Razia Sahi, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies how social interactions influence people’s emotions, “and feeling connected to other people is extremely, extremely important for us.”