CommunicationDifficult peopleLeadership: Say it like a leader

Two words to avoid when someone’s really upset

By September 29, 2015December 11th, 2019No Comments

Two nights ago, I got the most bizarre and scary phone call I’ve ever received.

My hubby and I were relaxing watching TV when the phone rang about 9:45 pm. My first inclination was to let it ring, as the receiver was in the other room and answering it required removing myself from my nestled in, blanketed position on the reclining couch. Before I could tell Steve not to worry about it, they could leave a message, he popped up to grab the phone.

I heard only my husband’s side of the conversation. It was enough for me to deduce that something was wrong. Steve looked a little annoyed, a little puzzled and scoffed it off, explaining, “It must be kids. Prank call or something. I couldn’t really make out what they were saying.” No big deal, right?

The the phone rang again. It was the same person.

A couple sentences into the conversation, Steve pushed the “speaker phone” button. We could hear what sounded like a middle-aged woman’s voice. Was that a slight accent of some sort? Maybe. No identifying background noises. We couldn’t make out the jibberish, just the tone. She sounded anxious, agitated. We both told her that we couldn’t understand what she was saying, that she must have the wrong number. More indistinguishable words. Given the distress in her voice, I suggested to her that she call 911 if she needed help.

Her response stopped us both dead in our tracks.

She said, “I don’t need to call 911. You do. Because I’m going to kill you.” The world stopped for just a second. Steve and I stared at each other in disbelief. Reality was suspended. A moment later, we were both rushing for our cell phones. I found mine first and while Steve continued to listen to her online, I dialed 911. (Here’s where the communication piece comes in …).

I heard the requisite response, “911. What is the nature of your emergency” on the other end. I began pouring out the story, asking if she could record the other line or listen in. I’m pretty sure my voice was shaking. She then said the two words you should never say to someone who’s upset. She told me, “Calm down”. Really?

POINT: Saying “calm down” to an upset person doesn’t validate his or her right to be upset.

I was stunned. For a split second, I wasn’t sure she understood the fear I felt, the seriousness of the situation. I felt like she believed I was overreacting (I wasn’t). I didn’t feel validated. It seemed like she disregarded my concern. Her saying, “Calm down”, stung as being dismissive. I felt a little bit scolded for being so upset.

LESSON: Never say “calm down” to someone who’s upset. It only agitates further.

She continued by telling me to take a deep breath and tell her what happened. Though I found her tone condescending, I put my feelings aside, noting how she could have, should have responded, and continued with the call. I made a mental note to share this incident with you so that, if you find yourself tempted to say, “calm down”, you’ll know why that saying doesn’t work. It’s not good to be on the receiving end of a “calm down” comment.

Now, you may be wondering what she, or you, could say instead. What you want to do is listen up and validate the other person’s reaction. Whether you agree with the reaction or not doesn’t matter. Find something in it that you can authentically acknowledge. Here’s some sayings that work waaaaay better than “calm down”.

  • That would be upsetting (maddening, frustrating, tiring … or whatever emotion they’re expressing), for sure.
  • I understand how that would be frightening ( … whatever emotion they’re expressing).
  • Stay with me. We’re going to work this out.
  • Anyone would react the way you are.
  • Given the circumstances, your reaction is completely normal
  • You did the right thing calling.

POINT: listen up and validate before you move to solving.

After listening up and validating the person’s concern, only then is it time to move to solving the concern. It takes only one sentence and a few seconds to say something other than “calm down”. Let the words you chose be ones that acknowledge and validate the person’s position because in doing so, you’ll find your way to the solution faster.

By the way, I’m delighted to report that the Police arrived in record time — all three cruisers! The call was traced and I can only imagine how upset she must be. I’m guessing that someone along the way will tell her to “calm down” and honestly, I find satisfaction in knowing how agitated that will make her. Karma’s a … well, you know.

And now you also know the two words to NEVER say to someone who’s upset.

© 2015 Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Until next time, here’s to …
Better communication, Better business, Better life,
Marion Grobb Finkelstein
Keynote Speaker / Corporate Trainer / Author

©2015 Marion Grobb Finkelstein

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete tagline with it:
Communication consultant, author, professional speaker Marion Grobb Finkelstein teaches individuals and organizations across Canada how to improve morale, confidence and productivity by changing how they communicate. Chat with her at or and sign up for her FREE “Marion’s Communication Tips” at

Post your comments and reactions below. There are no right or wrong responses, just honest, respectful ones. I’d love to hear your opinion. What about this article resonated with YOU?

Marion Grobb Finkelstein

Marion Grobb Finkelstein helps leaders use their natural communication strengths to build resilient teams that talk.

Leave a Reply