There are certain things that you just don’t want to do if your goal is to de-fuse tension. I mean, I’m all for focusing on the things you DO want, but we’ve all done the things on this list and maybe we don’t realize just how much damage they’re causing. So, in the name of raising awareness, let’s look at these 3 surefire ways to RAISE and to AVOID tension.
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Number one: Telling someone to calm down.
Yeah, um, this never works. I was once having a conversation with a friend where I was really upset about a turn our plans for getting together had taken. They told me to calm down and that I was over-reacting, and it was game over. I lost my mind on them and then hung up the phone.
No one who is upset and has been told to calm down has ever said, oh you’re right, I think I’ll just chill out. Because hearing those words when you’re upset makes you feel judged, like your reaction is somehow inappropriate. And guess what that does? Raising tension and makes you just lean even harder into what you’re feeling. Don’t tell ME to calm down!!!
I think these words come out of our mouth as a defense mechanism. We see someone spinning out of control and we want it to stop so we say what we think will stop it. Here’s something better you can say in the moment: I can see you feel passionately about this. That helps you validate their feelings without judging what those feelings are. When someone feels heard, the tension lessens. It’s not a cure all, but it’s a step toward de-escalation, which is moving the needle int eh right direction. And then it opens the door for the other person to tell you why they feel so passionately about it. And then you’re in dialogue, which is a chance to turn a tense situation into an opportunity for connection.
Number 2: Being sarcastic.
I think a lot of times we try to defuse a situation with humor—maybe by saying something like, Gee you’re taking this so well.
But sarcasm isn’t the way to avoid tension. Because sarcasm is saying the opposite of what you truly mean, and what you ultimately want in a tense situation is clarity. Also, when things are remotely heated, sarcasm stings. It makes someone want to strike back. This is the opposite of de-escalating! If you want to inject some humor into the situation, try making an exaggerating facial expression or gesture instead. At the very least, it will confuse the other person long enough to get them to pause, which is a good thing.
Number 3: Problem solving
This one is tricky because it seems so helpful. But if you launch into trying to ‘fix’ someone’s situation it implies that the other person is in some way broken and incapable of doing it for themselves. When we’re upset, really, what we most want is to be heard. Not fixed. Something more helpful to say is, I’d love to help you with this. Would you like help? If they say no, take them at their word. It’s honorable to want to help, it truly is. But unsolicited advice can raise tension. It is kind of like giving someone tooth whitening strips for a birthday present—it’s passive aggressive.
Daily Tiny Assignment to Avoid Tension
Today’s assignment is to flip one of these three common reactions to tension on its head, by either:
Saying, I can see you feel strongly about this
Experimenting with cutting tension with your facial expression or body language
Or asking someone if they’d like your help