I agree, mostly, with other people who say the angry person gets angrier when you stay calm and they want a reaction from you.
But it depends on what kind of calm you are. Some people who are getting yelled at feel uncomfortable, yet try to stay calm and end up with a half smile that looks like a smirk, which is truly infuriating.
But it is more likely that you're not acknowledging their feelings, which is infuriating too. If you find yourself in this situation please acknowledge their anger by saying something like “I see you're very angry.” Or, “You sound very frustrated.”
Until you acknowledge their feelings, they are bound to stay angry, BUT as soon as you acknowledge the frustration or anger, they can agree with you and tell you why, and be able to say everything they need to say.
By acknowledging their feelings and hearing what they're saying, they will calm down faster than they would otherwise. Just staying calm is not going to de-escalate the situation, if that makes sense.
Here is a real life example, between me and someone I will just call my…Schmusband.
Me: “You sound angry.”
Him: “Hell yes! You threw out my bell bottoms!”
“Well, I said I was cleaning out the closet, and they were 40 years old, and had moth holes. But you seem really mad.”
“Yeah I'm mad! Why did you touch my stuff? Don’t touch my stuff!!”
“I'm sorry. But you knew I was cleaning the closet, I have been saying so for a week. Why are you so mad?”
“I know they were old. Duh. Why do you think I still had them?”
At this point wild horses could not have dragged out of my mouth what I was thinking in my head, which was that he hadn't cleaned out his closet in 40 years.
I kept quiet. Part of de-escalting an argument is to be able to stand in silence so the angry person can talk.
“I wore those to my first dance. I loved those things. I looked cool in them. And you didn't ask me.”
I pictured it, the long, skinny legs, the high-waisted striped polyester bell bottoms, the shiny shirts with long, wide collars, disco music…the shy boy feeling confident and cool.
“I am so sorry. They had a lot of memories for you.”
“Yes. And you didn't ask me.”
“I did say I was cleaning out the closet. But I should have waited to check with you.”
“Yes. Don't ever touch my stuff again!”
At this point, you are de- escalating successfully, the ultimatum is just another way of saying “I am still really angry, (and sad that I lost this momento, and worried you will throw out other things I value.)”
Ignore the ultimatum, but acknowlege the right to be angry, once again. And address the “secondary” feelings, which lie under the anger.
“I see now why you got so mad.” (You are now using past tense, subtly suggesting the worst anger can be over). “You kept those bell bottoms for a lot of years, because they reminded you of good times. And I should have thought about that, and asked you about them, right?”
“Right.” (Wait, did you just get to be right?)
“I am really sorry. I will never throw anything of yours out before asking again. Next time I clean out things of yours I will wait for you to be here. I promise.”
I keep that promise, too. The truth is, I had a very old bra that my mother gave me once, because it didn't fit her. I couldn't throw it out for years after she passed, even though I had worn it out. Pretty gross, hanging on to that old, ratty thing for so long, right?
Those of you who have been in counseling or customer service will recognize this role-play exercise. I know it sounds stiff, it sounds formal. But for my honey, oops I mean my schmusband, using that formal structure, acknowledging the feeling, feeding back the message for him, shows him I am listening carefully to him and speaking to him with respect and not trying to “win.”
A simple statement that acknowledges the angry person's feelings will help the situation calm down very quickly. Sometimes you have to do it a couple times, but it really works because the person feels heard.
On a personal note, if you ever get into this exact same situation do NOT say the things that you really really want to say. Things like “I've been asking you to clean out the closet for a year.” Or threaten to turn them into the program Hoarders, or ask if they intend to raise other things along with the moths and mold in the closet. It is tempting and it is even funny, but it's really not cool to sharpen your wit on the person that you love. If you want to have a peaceful household. Remember, moth farmers have feelings too.
PS. I did eventually trap him in the bedroom (never you mind how) and went through the three lawn and leaf-sized bags of clothes one by one. I would hold them up and ask, “Throw away, keep, or not sure?” The keep pile ended up being, well, reasonable. The “not sure” pile was fairly big, but skipping over the indecision was allowing progress. The next few days we debated over “not sure" items hole-by-hole, stain by stain. But the exercise helped him trust me again and forgive me.
To me, the ever-increasing pile of worn clothes that was taking over our closet and collecting moths and dust was making me insane. For him it was an exercise in letting go of a past that he wasn't completely willing to let go of, and represented a lot of mental work for him. It was easier for him to continue to avoid it.
But more importantly, it marked the beginning of learning how to communicate while being angry (his ex-wife was an “escalator” when it came to fighting …she would never back down so neither would he). We are still together after almost 20 years, and with practice we have both learned how to fight more fairly and better listen to each other, and to understand each other with things that may seem small to one person but are a big deal to the other.