Dealing with violent people is hard, scary, and dangerous. Sooner or later you will come across one and the best way to win is always not to fight. If the violence is eminent, you should protect yourself, but if there is a way around it, try that first. Any time you have to physically defend yourself, there is a chance that you could lose. The someone attacking you might just be better then you are, there may be more people on his side than you thought and they jump in, or the attacker could just get lucky and hurt you badly.
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
How can you do that with an angry, aggressive, person? Most likely, if they calm down, they will lose a lot of the aggression and possible violence. So what’s the line we want to use, and you have probably used it many times in the past? “Just calm down.” That will never work. Try it the next time you are around your kids or someone that is mad. Has it ever worked on you? It pisses me off when I don’t feel like I’m excited and someone says calm down (even though they are probably right).
If the person is aggressive and violent, we need something else. Feelings are contagious, more so than a cold. You’ve been around people that are excited at a football game, you can feel it in the air. It works for anger, too. Someone around you gets angry, then pushes that anger to you and you get angry. Calm can also be contagious, anger is just more contagious. It’s an easier emotion to catch and takes almost no time to get from calm to angry. Going from angry to calm takes time.
You have to be the person that is calm so the other person can catch your emotion. You have to make sure you don’t catch their anger. So instead of saying “calm down” how about asking them about their anger and why. FBI Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss in his great book Never Split the Difference says simply label that person’s emotions to get them going down the road to a discussion instead of a fight.
Labeling looks like “it seems like” or “it looks like this happened,” just never say I. So when someone is pissed off at you or the world and is directing it at you, don’t say “just calm down, lets talk about this,” try “it seems like you are upset.” If the person hasn’t gone completely crazy with anger, you’ll get something like “Damn right I’m pissed!” With more information to follow.
Once you get the person talking, you are on the road to calming them down. Just keep putting that label back to them on their emotions and agreeing with them. But you have to do it in a calm voice. Voss calls it a “late night FM DJ Voice”. You know the ones that you are wondering why they are on in the middle of the night because they are putting everyone to sleep. They talk slowly, not really using any inflection, and ending every sentence with their voice going down a little bit. Remember, our voice goes up for questions, and down for statements. So everything is a simple statement of fact (or should sound that way).
Next time you are around an overly excited, agitated, or even angry person (like your kids if you are me), try this simple label (it seems like you’re agitated) and see if you can make this work for you. If you can make it work in an office setting you can make it work on the street. Just remember in a potentially violent encounter, the stakes are much higher and be prepared to defend yourself.