Valley Voices

How to have a calm conversation with an angry person

Douglas E. Noll of Clovis, a lawyer, mediator and peacemaker, teaches others how to calm angry people.
Douglas E. Noll of Clovis, a lawyer, mediator and peacemaker, teaches others how to calm angry people. Special to The Bee

Political polarization and an increase in tribalism has led to anger and frustration. Some people have reacted to their strong emotions with violence.

Whether it is a shooting in Fresno or Washington, D.C., we are all anxious about the rising tide of incivility and intolerance.

My work as a peacemaker, mediator, author, teacher and trainer has revealed to me a simple, counter-intuitive antidote for this. Essentially, we need to learn how to listen to an angry person with compassion.

The secret is ignore the words and listen to the emotions, both yours and others’. The ability to listen deeply to emotions allows to you connect with yourself and with those around you. You become egoless. Your focus is on understanding the emotional experiences of others.

When you accomplish this, you deeply validate the humanity of others and strengthen your personal emotional resiliency. You naturally become integrated in mind, body and spirit. You become compassionate in the face of intense anger, insult and disrespect.

I know this works because I have personally taught these skills to over 500 inmates in 10 California prisons, both men and women, most serving life sentences for murder. Using this type of listening, they have stopped gang riots, averted prison murders and have calmed down countless arguments and fights. The results have been extraordinary.

As babies, we acquire language skills amazingly fast. However, language skill is not listening skill. Unlike language skill, listening skill is not learned automatically. It must be learned, practiced, and mastered with some conscious effort.

When you truly listen to someone else, you submerge your own ego in the other person’s reality. You read their emotional data field and seek their core message, then you reflect back both the core message and the emotional experience. This is very different than simply hearing the words.

This is why I say “Stop listening with your ears!”

Listening is a three step process:

▪  Search for the other person’s core message – the substance of what they’re saying.

▪  Guess at the other person’s emotional experience (what they are feeling).

▪  State your understanding of the gist of what the core message is and the feelings that are associated with it.

Here’s the formula:

Core message

▪  “You think…”

▪  “As you see it…”


▪  “You are feeling…”

▪  “Sounds like you’re… about…”

Contrary to many techniques taught about listening, do not use “I” statements.


▪  “You are feeling anxious and nervous when there is a lot of arguing around you.”

▪  You would not say: “I hear you saying that you are feeling anxious and nervous when there is a lot of arguing around you.”

The reason for this is to put your entire focus on the speaker. The moment you add “I” to the conversation, it becomes about you; not the speaker.

When you get the reflection accurately, your speaker will unconsciously and automatically nod his or her head up and down. Often, your speaker will also unconsciously say “Yeah, yeah,” or words to that effect.

The speaker is not aware that he or she is doing this because you are tapping into a completely different system in the brain. It seems that this type of reflection bypasses the “analytical” systems in the brain and goes directly to the emotional centers for processing.

UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman demonstrated this in his ground-breaking 2007 fMRI scanning studies. In effect, listening and reflecting emotions, called affect labeling, is a process of lending your pre-frontal cortex to the speaker. By labeling emotions, you are helping the speaker process his or her emotional experience.

Affect labeling has an immediate and profound calming effect on the brain that allows for quick de-escalation. Once calm is restored, problem-solving can begin. This is why I teach people to de-escalate first, then problem solve. You cannot solve an emotional problem with logic.

In summary, when you are listening, you are not having a conversation. You are completely engaged in what your speaker is experiencing emotionally. Your goal is to state back that emotional experience along with the core message in the simplest way possible. When you do this, you are providing a deep service to the speaker.

The speaker feels deeply heard, calms down immediately and becomes open to listening.

This skill works on children as well as adults. It works on any human brain in any culture. It is the single most powerful tool I have developed in my peacemaker toolbox.

Douglas E. Noll of Clovis, an award-winning lawyer, is an internationally recognized mediator and peacemaker. His latest book, “De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less” will be published Sept.12 by Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster. Connect with him at

For a limited time, free copies of the book are available by paying shipping and handling costs. Go to De-Escalate-Free Book Offer at A free copy of his e-book “10 "The 10 Essential Steps to Legal Negotiation" is available at