“Calm Down!”

This is one of my kids’ favorite phrases – if I ask them to do something more than once, or if I use a stern voice or if I start to get a bit frustrated because I think they aren’t listening to me, they respond with “Calm down, MOM!” Of course, when someone tells me to calm down, it has the opposite effect on me. “What do you mean CALM DOWN??? I AM CALM!!!!”

In fact, I always chuckle when they say this to me. I know that I AM actually calm and I am not acting in a mad or unreasonable manner. In fact, I stay conscious about my approach so even when my kids work at pushing the buttons, I deliberately keep calm and don’t lose control. I won’t say I am always calm in life, but when it comes to my kids I have learned this skill and stay focused on it.

But the process of our interaction interests me a lot. Certain phrases we say to people are obvious ones to generate ire and negative responses. Most of us don’t like to be scolded or told what we’re doing isn’t appropriate. And many of us respond negatively when someone else seems “holier than thou” towards us – as if they would not lose their cool in a similar situation or as if they wouldn’t react the same way we have toward something. I may be upset about something that is going on, but once you point out how differently you would have acted and imply that I am not responding well, now I am really upset!

If we are honest, we’ll see how often we do make a statement or comment toward another person when we know it will make them upset. I have noticed myself doing this in the past when I felt insecure toward someone, or felt the person needed to be brought down a peg. It was long before I did this work about understanding other people and became more aware (as the Interested Observer) of what I was doing to others. Even though I might not have consciously thought I was bringing someone down, when I look back now at the comments and the behavior, I realize that’s what it was about.

The other reason we may do this is to deflect attention from ourselves and put it on the other person. Do my kids really want me to calm down, or do they just want me distracted so they don’t actually have to do whatever it is I have asked them to do? Are they worried about my blood pressure, or do they want me to just focus on something else? Instead of responding to someone by saying, “I don’t want to deal with you right now,” we’ll find a way to deflect the conversation and turn it to something else.

Sometimes we throw out a hurtful or negative comment because we feel the other person deserves it. Maybe they verbally hit us with something that we found upsetting, so we wait until we have our chance and then we throw it back at them. We know what we’re saying isn’t very nice, or isn’t very fruitful, but we want a chance to stab back when we can.

If we think about relationships and wanting to nurture them, and improve them, we have to recognize that hurtful comments – in whatever form we offer them – can only serve to tear down a relationship. If someone says “calm down” or “chill out” or “what’s your problem?” to you, you aren’t going to feel as if you want to offer that person a hug in that moment! You will feel yourself emotionally detaching from the person and putting distance between you. Nothing good comes from these kinds of comments; they only serve to drive in a wedge and make someone else feel badly.

When we go into our Interested Observer mode, we can see ourselves saying things and watching the other person’s reactions. If you can’t catch yourself before you say it, there is nothing wrong with saying “I’m sorry – I didn’t need to respond that way.” For those readers who have a true interest in building stronger relationships and forming bonds of trust and respect, pay attention this week to where you throw out a negative comment to someone without thinking about it first.