‘Don’t Tell Me To Calm Down!’

Professor offers alternative approaches to tense situations

It’s an all-too-common situation in a short-tempered, COVID-weary world.

You’re in the self-checkout line at the grocery store, the scanner isn’t working, and the customer in front of you becomes disruptive, shouting for the manager.

Trying helpfully to defuse the anger, you say, “You need to calm down.”


That is the worst thing you can say at that moment, said John Potter, associate professor of dispute resolution and conflict management in SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He has been an active practitioner in dispute resolution since 2001 and has mediated more than 3,000 disputes.

“When someone is already emotional, telling them to ‘calm down’ takes away their autonomy,” Potter says. “They will resist, and the situation will escalate even faster. The time span from impulse to action is just a few seconds.”

Instead, here are Potter’s recommendations for bystanders when an encounter escalates out of control.

  • First, ask yourself if you can realistically do something meaningful to help the situation. Potter said you are taking a risk to talk with angry people in 2022. If you choose not to help directly, consider finding someone who can, like a store manager or a security guard.
  • If you decide to help, start with a few questions, not a statement. Could I help you? Would you like me to find the manager? Would you be OK if we waited a minute for the manager to get here?
  • Ask three to five questions, but no more. Then, consider a direct statement. “I am getting more uncomfortable with your yelling.”
  • Make a prediction with potential consequences, both for you and others. “If you keep yelling, I won’t help you,” and for others, “If you keep yelling and cursing, others will get involved, and this could get unpleasant for all of us.”

If the person’s anger continues to escalate, walk away and know that you tried to help, he said.

But what if the tables are turned? What if you are the person shouting in the grocery store?

“Take a 90-second break,” Potter said. “Don’t talk, don’t recite mantras, just breathe and be quiet.”

After 90 seconds, the chemical messengers in the most primitive parts of our brain dissipate, and we begin to regain perspective, he said. “An easy way to do this is to count each breath until you reach 90.”

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