How to STOP Your Relational Triggers in the Moment

Have you ever felt triggered? Of course, you have; we have all felt provoked at some point in our lives. We can easily become frustrated, angry, or defensive by something someone says or does. These actions trigger us to say and do things in the moment that we later regret. Our responses can be very harmful to our relationships, even to those relationships that mean the most to us, such as those with our spouses, kids, or the important team members who are vital to the success of our organizations. In this post, I want share with you a few steps you can take to help you stop your relational triggers and avoid doing or saying things that will damage your influence.



The word “trigger” is a psychological term used to label something that causes us to remember a painful memory. Sometimes that painful memory can create a negative and unwanted reaction. The subject of triggers is very broad. There are a wide range of different triggers that can cause a wide range of responses. Responses to triggers can range from small amounts of stress and anxiety to severe PTSD.


In this post, I want to cover the milder, more common relational triggers that can surface in any leader’s normal relationships. A common example of a relational trigger is an anger outburst prompted by the anger problems of your parents and their responses to you as a child. If you’ve dealt with these issues in your past, someone becoming visibly angry with you could trigger a retaliation of anger in you.


Another example of a relational trigger is your reaction to someone’s response to your boundaries. Their emotional breakdown can cause you to become overly nervous, prompting you to give in to what they want in order to appease and calm them, even though that reaction is not in your best interest or the best interest of the organization.

There are many other ways that triggers occur. Perhaps someone doesn’t respond to your repeated attempts to reach out to them and that reminds you of the times you felt extreme loneliness as a child. Their lack of attention can trigger a negative response in you. These situations are uncomfortable, and they can leave us feeling vulnerable and embarrassed as we retaliate inappropriately.


Most of us experience relational triggers at various times in our lives, and unfortunately, we can say or do things when we are triggered that can diminish the influence we have with the people we lead. This is why it is important that you learn to identify how your body responds in the moment that you are triggered so that you know exactly what to do when you find yourself in that situation.


For me, I usually feel triggered when I experience a lack of approval or acceptance from others. Most of the time, I respond by becoming rigid and serious. I can feel myself getting defensive in those situations even if I don’t say anything. Many times, I’ll become irritable and avoid people in order to try to gain my composure. Although these are common responses for me, it’s important that I find a way to respond differently so that I can avoid being triggered.

When someone does or says something that triggers you and makes you feel angry, defensive, or frustrated, you don’t need to retaliate negatively in anger or frustration. It’s important that you have a plan and you understand what to do in these situations. In elementary school, you are taught that if your clothes catch on fire, you are supposed to stop, drop, and roll, right? You must have a series of steps to go through that are easy and actionable without giving them much thought. Likewise, your response needs to be automatic when you recognize that you are being triggered by someone else’s actions or words.


1. Recognize the Emotion


First of all, it is important to recognize the emotion that comes to the surface for you when you feel yourself being triggered. The neuroscience behind why it's important to know what emotions you're experiencing says that everything you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch travels through your body by an electrical signal. These electrical signals travel from cell to cell until they reach your brain. When these signals hit your brain, they must go through the frontal lobe before they reach the rational, logical-thinking place of your brain. The signals hit the emotional part of your brain before they hit the rational, more logical part of your brain.


Unfortunately, this means that you’ll experience sensations emotionally before you can think about them logically. Therefore, if we actually recognize and even name the emotion we experience in our minds, we can think much more clearly and quickly about the situation. I've heard it said quite often, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” If you can actually name the emotion you’re experiencing, you can tame the emotion.


2. Listen to the Other Person


It is important to use active listening and give people the benefit of the doubt. It is also important to validate what the other person says and to let them know that you hear them. Either repeat what they’ve said to you or paraphrase their words. You don’t have to agree with what they say, but you do need to let them know that you’ve heard them.

If the circumstances are so that you don't feel like you can repeat their words back to them, you can say something like, “Wow, that’s really hard to hear.” By saying these words, you can still be authentic and truthful without assuming a defensive posture toward the other person.


3. Gain Perspective


Ask the other person questions to gain perspective about the situation. Avoid being abrasive when trying to figure out what they’re thinking and where they're coming from. Instead of defending yourself or making sarcastic remarks, try to find out why that person is saying those words or responding in that way.


4. Own Your Part


Own your part of the problem by practicing compassion and acceptance. Think about why you are feeling the emotions you are feeling and try your best to take responsibility for your part in the situation. Apologize if you need to. Maybe the issue isn’t about what you did, but more about something you didn’t do. Perhaps you could have communicated better or been less passive in your approach. Think about what part of the situation you can own.


5. Move Forward


Finally, turn your attention to moving forward. Instead of focusing on the past, look to the future. Keep the conversation focused on what is ahead. Concentrate on what will best help you and the other person move forward.


For instance, think about the problem and focus on what it would take to get a different and better outcome in the future that feels good to everyone involved. You have to remember to take the high road in this situation. I know it’s not easy, but it’s the best thing for you and the organization.


There’s a saying that I like to quote, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig liked it.” Even if the other person is completely wrong and the problem comes from their insecurities or past hurts, try your best not to wrestle with them. It’s usually better to look to the future and focus on what will help you both move forward than to concentrate on past issues.


After following these steps, you should feel much more calm and level-headed. You should be able to think more clearly without retaliating or damaging the relationship. The goal of this process is for you to come out of the situation with a win-win result. You don’t want to ignore the issue that caused you to feel triggered, but you also don’t want to get so defensive that you damage the relationship. The goal is for you to walk away with an effective resolution that leaves everyone involved in a good state of mind.


Triggers are a natural part of our human experience, but they do not have to ruin our relationships or disturb our peace. It’s important when having hard conversations and dealing with triggers to recognize the emotions you are feeling, listen to what the other person is saying, stay curious and gain perspective on the situation, own your part of the problem, and focus on moving forward in the relationship. Doing these things will help you find a resolution that benefits you and the other person.



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