Sometimes, people get upset. Sometimes is hopefully not all of the time. People can be children or friends or partners or siblings or students or parents. Upset can be angry or sad or distressed or uncomfortable.
Here’s a few tricks to deal with that.
Please note: these tricks mostly only work on your peers, or people younger than you. If you try to use these tricks on most figures of authority – bosses, teachers, parents – they will feel more upset, not less upset. This is because people in positions of relative authority like to feel as if they are more in control than the people they have authority over, whether or not this is true. When you try to empathize or give paths to calmness to people in positions of relative authority, they will think that you are being patronizing. So I will advise that you use these tricks on peers or people younger than you – people that you might regularly expect to talk to you about their feelings.
1. Start with getting some more information about what’s going on.
“Hey, you look like you’re upset. Can you tell me a little more about that?”
I like to say “can you tell me a little more about that?” instead of “what’s wrong?” This may just be personal preference, but I feel as if it gives the person I’m talking to a little more direction, and a little less direction.
More: here is specifically what I want information about.
Less: I’m not assuming something is wrong.
2. Get more specific details, if your pal is up to share them.
“What happened when he said ____?” “Did you have to ask her again?” “What did the doctor say about the results?” “Who else was there when that happened?”
That will help paint a more complete picture of the situation. If you end up going into problem solving mode, you’ll have a better idea of what needs to happen next, and if not, it can still help the person who is upset to articulate a more complete version of the narrative, to help them process their own feelings.
3. Now is not the time for your feelings.
Caveat, obviously: you can’t always help having feelings. Sometimes, the thing that your buddy is upset about will also make you upset (deaths, drama in a social subgroup, unkindness from a loved one).
But if your goal is to help out your friend/kiddo/whomever who is upset, try to control your external emotional reaction. Many, MANY people, especially children and people socialized as women, will turn off their own upset feelings to help you process your upset feelings. Then they are going to have to deal with all of those feelings later when you’re not around. Plus, they will learn that you may not be the best person to turn to in the future.
You may need to compartmentalize your own feelings, or set them aside for later, or disassociate, or do any number of things to not have an external emotional reaction. That’s up to you. But it will help.
4. Validate their feelings
“Wow, it sounds like it was really frustrating when that happens.” “I can understand why that hurt your feelings!” “Yeah, that sounds like a really scary scenario.” “I can see why you’re worried, wow.”
Now isn’t the time to say “don’t worry,” either. They’re already worrying. They don’t want to feel judged for being upset. Show them that you understand why they are upset, and that feeling upset is a perfectly valid emotional state.
5. See if they want something specific from you.
I’m very fond of the question, “do you want listening Galia, indignant Galia, or problem-solving Galia?” I dive VERY quickly into problem solving – it takes some real work from me to stand back and see if that would actually help the person I’m talking to. Sometimes, folks need to process their feelings before they go into solutions. Sometimes they want a sense of control that only comes from making a plan. Sometimes they want to rant, or rage, or feel understood. Unless you know your conversation partner very, very well, it will be tough to know which version of yourself that they want or need in that moment.
- Listening Galia is here to be mostly quiet. To ask clarifying questions, and to nod, and make sympathetic faces. “Wow, that’s really tough. I’m so sorry she said that to you.”
- Indignant Galia gets upset with her conversation buddy. “What a jerk! I can’t believe he just left you there by yourself! Ugh – I’ll fight him for you!”
- Problem-Solving Galia is going to offer suggestions. To make a list of logical solutions to the problem that made my student/friend/sibling upset, and go down the list and explore the feasibility of each option to fix the problem.
Each of those will appeal to different people at different times. Give them the option of which kind of conversation partner they want.
6. Ask before initiating physical contact.
Now, each person is different, and you might know your buddy really well, and know that they always want to be held when they’re upset. But the majority of people that I know want to be held at some points and not-touched at other points. Maybe they want to hold hands, or for you to rest one hand on their knee. Maybe they want to be spooned, or to not be anywhere close to another human being.
Ask before touching.
Offer, if it’s appropriate, though. Physical contact triggers the release of oxycontin and serotonin and it lowers cortisol (stress hormone). It can help calm someone down, if that’s what they want.
7. Try to lift them out of their bad mood, if and only if that feels appropriate.
Use your judgement, pal. How bad was the thing they were upset about? Should they brush it off? Will it take a lot of processing? Will it be a problem for a while? Do they want to feel better right away?
Sometimes people just gotta feel yucky for a while. If that’s the case, hold the space for them to do that. Allow them to feel yucky. If you become exhausted dealing with an upset person, take some space for yourself, but don’t demand that they pretend to feel better, just so *you* feel better.
If you both think it would be better for them to throw off the yucky mood, try a gentle distraction, a nice treat like chocolate or a bath, something else to focus on. Employ typical cheering up strategies. Sex, a movie, a walk, bubbles, snuggling a doggo, inviting over a friend.
8. Drink some water/eat a snack
Sooooo many bad moods are caused or exacerbated by low blood sugar or dehydration. Hand over a granola bar or a glass of cool water (or hot tea, if you’re into that sort of thing). Worst case scenario, someone is still upset and is also more hydrated/fed than they were. Best case, you’ve pulled someone out of a case of the grumps because they were hangry.
It’s important to hold space for someone else to be upset. Step 7 – cheering someone up – should rarely be the first step. This may be different when it comes to very little kids who can’t articulate why they’re upset, but anyone old enough to have a reasonable conversation about feelings (3 or 4 years old) should get a chance to talk about why they’re upset before you try to change their emotional state. Being upset is valid, even if it’s for a reason you disagree with.