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Assumptions:
Conversation is verbal. We will be talking face to face. In a heated argument, people can't be expected to stop talking automatically. They may continue to talk to prove their point.

In the middle of the conversation if I notice the other person is becoming angry but since the discussion has to be continued, what should I say to "actually" calm the person down to avoid a fight at the moment?

From: https://workplace.stackexchange.com/a/93068/826

Telling someone to "calm down" is, I think, rude and condescending in a professional setting. Especially if they are your senior. It might get someone to bite their tongue but is unlikely to diffuse tensions.

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    The obvious answer is still just "stop talking". Note that The Workplace does much better with questions based on a real situation rather than hypothetical ones. – Philip Kendall Jun 22 '17 at 5:00
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    "To actually calm them down" - any effective answer will describe a method of manipulation - not necessarily wrong, but be aware of the responsibility and of the backlash if you use it against someone to their disadvantage and they realize you did. – rackandboneman Jun 22 '17 at 9:01
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    Hand them a copy of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy which has "Don't Panic" in large friendly letters on the cover. If nothing else it might confuse them a bit, which will distract them from their anger long enough to calm them down. – aslum Jun 22 '17 at 16:27
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    My go-to move is "Let's step back a moment, and look at this from a different angle." – Bradley Uffner Jun 22 '17 at 17:37
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    If the other person gets angry, the discussion is over. An angry person is neither rational nor constructive so you won't get anywhere. You either need to wait until they calm down and say nothing or, if you can, interrupt the conversion and resume it later on. – laurent Jun 23 '17 at 8:27

12 Answers 12

156

If you notice the other person getting agitated to the point of it being a problem to continue the discussion, just say:

Hey, I think we should park this for now and continue later.

"The discussion has to be continued" is effectively never true. You can wait 5 minutes to cool down even in the most stressful office situations. Plenty of things can be continued the next day, which will give both involved time to cool down and time to think over the best way to continue the discussion.

If you're working in a field where you have to take literal life-or-death situations in a very short time, you (and your colleague) should have been trained to deal with just this situation, and you (both) should not be getting angry and know how to deal if the other person does get angry.

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    +1 - spending 5 minutes at unproductive discussion that only worsens things is always worse than 5 minutes break, no excuses (except life-saving but never have I ever seen such argument in life-saving situation). – Mołot Jun 22 '17 at 10:07
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    Sometimes rescue workers that are emotionally impaired to proceed with operations are made to time-out, like "go back to the vehicle cabin". I know a firefighter sergeant, and he does that to his crew members. – Mindwin Jun 22 '17 at 15:19
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    @mindwin And in those life or death jobs (emergency service, pilots, doctors, military, etc) there's pretty much always someone with the authority to make a decision and end the conversation (even if they're the angry one, probably better to move on than argue) – mbrig Jun 22 '17 at 16:10
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    Even in literal life-or-death situations, there's always more time available than you think. Can confirm both that we get trained on how to deal with them, and that there's a hierarchy that will come into play if necessary, though. – ArtOfCode Jun 22 '17 at 22:53
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    As a side note, I don’t recommend watching Air Crash Investigation / Mayday. I watched every single episode and now don’t really want to fly... – Tim Jun 23 '17 at 10:14
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  1. Stop arguing. Let the other person keep talking until they're done. With luck, they'll calm down a bit by having their say. If they're getting more heated all by themselves, only then interrupt them.

  2. Apologize if appropriate, otherwise do something close to apologizing. For example, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to turn this into an argument."

  3. Pause, if possible. Since you already let them say all they wanted to say, with luck, anything new they'd want to say would be positive, since you just apologized.

  4. Find common ground. For example, "We're both trying to solve the same problem."

  5. Again, pause. With luck, they'll respond in a positive way.

  6. Acknowledge the legitimacy of whatever argument they're making. For example, "I agree with you that <variant of what he said you agree with>". So, for example, if he's arguing that a change you want to make shouldn't be made because it's too dangerous, agree that we need to carefully look at the risks before making the change.

  7. If you find that you can't prevent the situation from escalating, make an exit. Just say you can't discuss it right now or otherwise extricate yourself and hope the conversation can be continued later.

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    If I am arguing "we shouldn't change that because it's too risky", and then someone tries #6 on me, then at best I will feel like I am being misunderstood, since actually I never said "we need to carefully look at the risks before making the change". That could just be me though. – Wilson Jun 22 '17 at 15:56
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    @Wilson if you tell me that a change I believe is necessary is too dangerous then telling you that I agree that (... there are risks there, so...) we need to look at the risks before making the change is an attempt at resolving the issues. If you cannot articulate what the risks are in a change, you won't persuade anyone of their legitimacy. Risk management around change should be about moving things forward by demonstrating that risks can or can't be managed and therefore the change can or can't happen, not about digging one's heels in and repeating "but my many unspoken risks". – Rob Moir Jun 22 '17 at 16:43
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    @Wilson The idea is to make the strongest possible statement in support of their position that you actually agree with even though you don't agree with their entire position. If, for example, they're arguing against hiring someone because of the cost, you can acknowledge that it's important to justify every hiring expense and not to hire people that can't be justified. (Assuming you agree with them that much.) – David Schwartz Jun 22 '17 at 17:28
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    You're missing 1b: ACKNOWLEDGE. Apologizing or responding is not the same as simply acknowledging that you have received their communication, in such a way that they actually know that you have truly understood it. This is a fundamental to communication and requires some practice. – Wildcard Jun 23 '17 at 3:36
  • #4 is my favorite - even during a heated debate, people tend to be rational & both parties want what is best - especially if your on the same team (i.e. same company), working together makes more sense than arguing – user2813274 Jun 23 '17 at 20:17
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Active listening always works. Always. It takes a few minutes, and it takes practice to do it right - but doing active listening right will disarm, calm down and bump people from a confrontational mindset into a constructive one with remarkable efficacy. It is impossible to become or stay mad at someone, almost to the point of it being ridiculous. I have actually tried to be angry and defensive at someone else while they were doing it, and it is hard to stay confrontational with someone when they are doing this. I hate to sound like a psych major, but it just puzzles me how effective it is.

So, what is active listening? In normal conversation, when two people are discussing a topic, the "ownership" of the conversation will flow easily between the two, when one has voiced an opinion, the other will chime in. It is a social event, and the one doing the talking will perhaps use body language, usually hands, head and eyes to underscore points. When this person is done with the conversation, we have small social cues for when we think it is OK to be "interrupted". We shift our balance, from one foot to the other, we glance at them, we breathe outwards significantly longer than "usual" respiration - there are many tiny cues that everyone picks up on. In a conflict, however, we do not lubricate our conversation with these things - we confront. We furrow our eyebrows, we set one foot in front of the other, leaning forward, or perhaps we instead lean back, crossing our arms in front of our chest (we are challenging, throwing the gauntlet). All energy and attention is being spent on refuting, challenging the other party and promoting oneself. Arguments cannot win, because this is an assertive domain, not a persuading one. (I imagine 4 domains, assertive, rational/persuading, attracting, empathic) Active listening is in the empathic domain - having a highly passive body language and concentrated listening - in order to interrupt the aggressive behaviour of your "opponent". The body language will make it very hard to (unconsciously) stay on the aggressive.

First thing first, you have to let go of your arguments, your viewpoints and your opinions. Put them somewhere safe, don't think about them. Thinking about the confrontation will change your body language and make you an opponent again. The idea is to remove the opponent to his aggression. You can bring them up later. Every second of the conversation has to be either one of two things. Either you listening to him or you reading back your understanding, digging deeper. ("So you said [reading back what he said], can you perhaps explain more about [part of what he said]" confirming that you have understood his opinion, and that you are interested in his story. You must be like a scholar, intently focused on trying to understand the speakers standpoint.

  • You must NOT at any point, disagree - or argue.
  • You must NOT at any point, take the conversation back and tell a story about you (believe it or not, this is probably the hardest point)
  • You must NOT at any point start to dissect his arguments for the purpose of refuting them, just listen.
  • You must use all the social cues for listening behaviour "mm-hm", nod your head, tilt your head slightly when he speaks, keep eye contact.
  • You must listen - which is hard when you have to listen to both his words AND his body language.
  • Keep at it until you see his aggressive stance weaken. Look for the "Angry face", where is center of gravity rests, position of his hands ("guard position" = bad), the elevation of his shoulders.

So, when you see the signs that the confrontation is dead, round off the active listening gently and still without confrontation:

"I have a much clearer view of your standpoint now [first name], thank you for taking the time to explain it to me. You know, of course, I am concerned about some of the issues we have discussed - I'd appreciate it if you could let me explain my concerns - either now or at some other time." - or something to that effect. You don't have to include the last part, you could say just thank you for explaining it and then round off there, and try again at a later point in time.

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    I think this is absolutely the best answer, and would directly address the OP's concern that They may continue to talk to prove their point. I do think the answer could be improved by some explanation of what "active listening" is and maybe some specific pointers for the OP. – 1006a Jun 22 '17 at 18:28
  • @1006a Allright. I'll try to improve it. Thanks for the feedback. – Stian Yttervik Jun 23 '17 at 7:18
  • That's a great edit. I already upvoted, but I'd +1 again if I could. – 1006a Jun 23 '17 at 15:46
  • Needs more upvotes. The accepted answer, while probably good-intentioned, brings a condescending tone to it: "I'm the greater person here, I'll walk away first", or rather "I'm deciding that it's time to stop this conversation for 5 minutes". It's a good tactic, which often works, but it can also be seen as highly confrontational and piss off the other person even more. – David Andrei Ned Jun 23 '17 at 16:21
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    @BoundaryImposition Empathic communication style is just one tool in the toolbox. Sure, you can do without it, but in my experience - as a leader and as a leadership coach, active listening is absolutely vital. Everyone can boss people around, but getting people (in a non-military situation...) to follow implicitly requires a different mindset. Sometimes these people are smarter than you, those are the ones you want to keep. Can't bully them, they'll find somewhere else to be. – Stian Yttervik Jun 25 '17 at 11:08
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In many of these situations there is "blame" on both sides when things escalate into an argument.

Part of the reason people continue talking when they "should stop" (that's a bit loaded right there) is that the opposing party is not giving the impression that they are listening to what is being said. Indeed, if you are sitting there waiting for them to shut up so you can talk, and/or trying to talk over them, you are likely not really listening, and the other person of course picks up on that.

Actually calming down yourself (it does take two to argue), actively listening, and then trying to find a common ground will naturally yeild a calmer, more productive conversation.

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    "Calming down yourself" is great advice to cool a situations. However, "In most of these situations there is 'blame' on both sides" is, while sometimes true (and you should always check whether this is the case), a fallacy which permits bullies to get their way with polite people. They make use of this fallacy to turn the table on their target. I would add this caveat to an otherwise constructive answer. – Captain Emacs Jun 22 '17 at 7:16
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    Yes this can happen, but we are not talking about bullying here. The question is about avoiding arguments and cooling down heated discussions, with the intent of continuing the discussion. There are too many caveats to cover for such a broad question, with no context to narrow it down. – user71765 Jun 22 '17 at 7:38
  • The advice is good if we have an "honest" escalation, but I thought "In most of these situations..." to be a misleading statement. The counterpattern is that someone's being baited only for the other side to be able to patronise them by seemingly soothing behaviour ("calm down"). That can well be a dominance display. Keep an eye out for that. This, to avoid being played this way, to play others this way or even to avoid just coming across as such unintentionally (which I understood OP's question implicitly to refer to). – Captain Emacs Jun 22 '17 at 7:51
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    edited to say "in many of these situations". The fact remains that it does take two to argue, so checking your own beahvior is important. In the event that someone is trying to power play you, listening to them will give you many clues about what they are up to and you can respond in a less reactionary way. It is never bad to listen and stay calm. There is no caveat there. You don't lose power by doing that. – user71765 Jun 22 '17 at 8:01
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people can't be expected to stop talking automatically.

Actually, they can. Everyone has a time limit how long they can monologue about the same problem if they receive no feedback at all. The time limit resets whenever they receive any positive or negative feedback on what they say. So it is important that you don't provide any.

While the person is ranting, look at the person with a straight face, but stay completely silent. Do not react at all. When they run out of words, mentally count to ten, and then start your rebuttal.

Deescalate the situation by speaking slow and calmly. Start by acknowledging their emotions ("I see you are angry about this..."). For most people*, showing anger is not about getting what they want, it's about expressing their emotions. Just showing that you acknowledge their anger is often very deescalating without forcing you to make any concessions about the actual subject of the debate. Then you can start to state your arguments.

Saying "calm down" actually does the opposite. It says "I do not acknowledge that your emotions are justified". It creates an additonal meta-conflict about you not taking their emotional state seriously. This further prevents you from coming to a solution about the actual subject-matter.

* there are also people who use anger as a scare-tactic to bully people into compliance. But this behavior can be dealt with in the exact same manner.

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    "I see you are angry about this" also has the potential of backfiring if you're misreading their current emotion (or how they've labeled it themselves). "I see you feel strongly about this" might be a bit more neutral. – Erik Jun 22 '17 at 10:55
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    I think this is outstanding advice, but I would be careful about labeling someone else's emotions, especially when it comes to anger. It is possible that you might actually cause someone to feel anger over a statement like this, which can end up feeling like a trick: "I see you are angry" "I AM NOT ANGRY" ("ahem, well now you are, aren't you?"). I think it's safer and more respectful to avoid labeling any emotions that are not your own, but if you must, I'd go with something more neutral like "I see you are very passionate about this". – user71765 Jun 22 '17 at 10:55
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First of all YOU must remain calm. Don't get angry or emotional, you can't think clearly and you will also escalate the situation.

Then you should try to find common ground. Ask questions that will surely yield a YES.

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    This. It's not so much what you say but what you do that will allow you to calm the other person. By refusing to add any energy to the interaction, it becomes a bit harder for the other person to maintain the elevated energy level they need to remain as emotional as they currently are. – Dan Henderson Jun 23 '17 at 17:54
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Basically, you need to make sure they understand you're treating them like a person and taking them seriously, not ignoring their feelings or concerns.

I can see this topic is important to you, and I may not fully understand your position. Could you please help me understand better what I can do to help solve the problem?

Or something along those lines. Basically, you make it clear to the other person that you understand that they're upset, that you take their feelings seriously, and you ask what you can do to help fix the issue. Then employ active listening (as has been suggested elsewhere) and take what they say seriously.

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When you're in the middle of a tense situation, your mind has gone from "rational human being" to "holy tigers and bears I'm under attack!"

Rational thought don't enter into it.

The trick, then is to learn how to get from fight-or-flight response to rational thought. Somehow, somewhere, something has happened (probably something you did) to get the other person to feel like something is dangerous. You're going to have to find that reason, and telling the person to calm down won't get you there.

They're likely going to perceive that as an attack. Some options:

  • It seems like you're upset/angry here, is that correct?
  • I can see that I've made a mistake. Can you help me understand how I screwed up so I don't do that in the future?

Your only goal should be to make them feel like they are heard and understood. If you don't understand still, tell them! And if they try to explain a few times and you're still not sure, maybe take a break.

You should also try to explain as a way of showing you understand, but not parroting their words. For instance if someone said,

You're such an idiot, I hate your stupid face!

And you say,

So you're saying that I'm an idiot and you hate my stupid face?

That's just going to cause more problems. But if you said something like,

It sounds like you have a problem with me, is that correct?

That might help. Of course it also helps to know your audience.

In any case, there are loads of resources out there that you can use, Crucial Conversations is a training that I went through that was super valuable in this area. If you get a chance to do some training I highly recommend it.

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There are already some good answers. In particular I agree with the advice to arrange for a break, but I want to spend some time on why telling someone on the opposite side of an argument to "calm down" is usually disastrous. This can be useful for finding better wording, or at least avoiding poor wording. Even calling for a break can run into similar issues if you are not careful, e.g: "Let's all take five minutes to cool off." That phrase can easily come off as a passive-aggressive way of saying "calm down".

So, what's wrong with saying "calm down"?

First, it either is or is easily perceivable as being presumptuous. If the person is quite visibly angry, for example they are yelling and/or have aggressive body language (hitting things, aggressively leaning in), then your external assessment of their emotional state is quite possibly more accurate than their own self-assessment in that moment but only because they aren't in a rational frame of mind. If they don't agree with your assessment, then it will be perceived as presumptuous. If you only "get the impression" that they are angry, then you are literally presuming their emotional state. In the context that the comment you quoted was given, this was dramatically the case as it was an email exchange.

Following and compounding that, "calm down" is an order. It's grammatically an imperative statement, and semantically it's a command. This is why it is "especially [rude and condescending] if they are your senior" and why Captain Emacs in a comment here states that it "[may] well be a dominance display". This is bad enough on its own, but (even as a subordinate) if I don't agree with the presumption that I'm angry, how can I comply with "calm down"? Heck, removing all the social dynamics aspects, "calm down" just isn't a very actionable command. It's like telling someone to "work harder". What does that mean? What do you actually want them to do? How will they know they are "working hard"? What if I don't know what to do to "work harder"/"calm down"? This is one of the benefits of "let's take a break"; it clearly specifies what to do and is a good strategy (even for yourself) for calming down.

Further compounding, why should they calm down? There are two cases: either they agree with you that they are angry, or they don't. In the former case, "calm down" comes off as "you being angry inconveniences/displeases me, so stop". This is a rather uncharitable reading, but there is little reason to expect things to be taken charitably in such a situation. In the latter case, they have to wonder what it is that they are doing that you see as indicating that they are angry. There's an apparent possibility. Apparently, the very act of disagreeing or arguing against you is perceived by you to be indicative of anger. Therefore, by saying "calm down" you are really saying "stop disagreeing with/arguing against me". Further, you may be trying to frame them as "the unreasonable one". Again, this is a somewhat uncharitable reading but is a likely consequence of the presumably oppositional situation and the vagueness of what constitutes "calming down". And frankly it may well not be in their interest to calm down. Applying this to calling for a break suggests against wording like: "Let's take a break so we can have a more productive discussion." "Productive discussion" comes off as code for "a discussion in which you agree with me".

Here are some potential tips on what to do, as opposed to what not to do. In a meeting setting, you may have some procedural rules you can apply, e.g. if discussion on a topic takes more than five minutes it automatically gets tabled. Even without such a rule, saying something like: "It doesn't seem like we're going to reach agreement on this soon, let's table this until after the other agenda items/let's schedule a separate meeting for this/let's talk about this one-on-one later" is an option. It is important to to have that follow-up aspect. For a more one-on-one situation, you can use your own emotional state to call for a break. For example something like: "Can you give me a few minutes to clear my head/collect my thoughts?" or even "I'm starting to get worked up, can I take five minutes to calm down so I can think about this rationally?" (I don't advocate the latter, unless it's an accurate statement of your internal state.)

Of course, to not just get back into a heated argument you need to first calm down yourself if necessary then reflect on what they were saying, what you might have said/done that prompted the reaction, whether your reading of the situation is accurate, what to say or do instead, if this "fight" is worth it, and even whether them "staying calm" is actually important to you or in their interest. For example, I'm reading Thomas Schelling's "The Strategy of Conflict" right now and he discusses how demonstrably curtailing your own rationality can be a rational strategy. Obviously figuring this out can be difficult which is why I find books like Schelling's, or Edgar Schein's "Helping" to be interesting and valuable.

1

Think of how an animal would respond to "calm down". We, as much as we'd like to believe not, have a lot in common with animals. When agitated, unless a person has presence of mind to be listening, nothing you say, such as "Calm Down" will be given some thought.

This is why it's best to just say nothing! Silence is golden. Just stand up and leave.

If the other person seriously cares about your opinion/ideas/bullshit, they will bring up the discussion eventually.. If they don't and they just want to argue, they will probably try to get you agitated but at the point where you are calm and quiet, you probably won't be able to respond in the way they'd want, and would eventually give up.

And if you have no care about what people think about you and your ideas, then by all means, just AGREE with them, and just say:

"OK cool, I'll give it a thought. I'll catch you later when I have some questions."
-1

Something which works often for me:

I pose a question, which requires to go one step back, but is not directly related to the thing the person/people are angry or fighting about.

-2

I have sometimes just gotten up and walked away. It's probably the best way. My other recourse is just to start laughing, doesn't really help the situation every time, but makes me feel a bit better.

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    I guess the idea of the question is to find something which would help and not be perceived as rude. If someone walks away or starts laughing awkwardly I would perceive that as rude, maybe childish (teenagers tend to do this in arguments). – skymningen Jun 22 '17 at 6:53
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    @skymningen if I lose my temper, I'm an ex bouncer, better if I walk away. I have had the odd person follow me out, didn't end well. But I came up through blue collar jobs. – Kilisi Jun 22 '17 at 6:57
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    While this might work for you, and judging by answers I've read from you in the past, it likely fits your personality. And to be fair if I worked with you It'd be a reaction I completely expected... I don't think it works as a general answer for the majority of people. – Reaces Jun 22 '17 at 14:59
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    I think it depends of the situation. For example, if my boss or other coworker is talking to me and I'm angry or I can't interrumpt him/her, if I decide to walk away = that would be childish. In other hand, if I'm in a meeting and the meeting communication becomes heavy, I could say excuse me a minute and walk away for a moment (maybe 1-2 minutes would be enough) = that doesn't look childish for me (or others - there are talking). – Mauricio Arias Olave Jun 22 '17 at 18:09
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    I think just getting up and walking away is incredibly rude and disrespectful. Unless the other person is being more so (and I don't think the question supposes that the other person is being profane or shouting, just that they're getting upset), this is escalating behavior and not a good idea. – Joe Jun 22 '17 at 19:11

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