How Emotional Triggers Work


In my work recently I have noticed a more comprehensive way (in my mind at least) as to how triggers work. There are many reasons why we get emotional upset, but I will give you a scenario that seeks to encapsulate my understanding. Remember, triggers are not just the hot emotions: Frustration, anger, rage. They also encompass anxiety, worry, fear, sadness, depression. Any of those so-called ‘negative’ emotions are what I coach around in organizations because they can cause a lot of havoc when not managed well.

The scenario is a case of negative intention meets negative impact. Let’s say person A is doing something that royally pisses person B off. So Person B is getting emotionally upset and instead of addressing this issue in a positive way he uses sarcasm (negative intention) to deal with it; he launches a sarcastic comment when under duress to person A. Person A then gets upset by the sarcasm (negative impact) and then gives person B a dirty look, then issues a sarcastic comment of her own and then walks away (another negative intention followed potentially by another negative impact!). Each person feels justified for launching a negative behavior because they think the other one has pissed them off. They are both partially right. Person B is indeed having a reaction to something person A is doing, this is true because it would follow that person B wants person A to stop doing that thing or do something different. So person B’s initial trigger wasn’t managed well and he dropped sarcasm, which has not helped the situation, in fact it has escalated it. Person A got hooked by the sarcasm, got triggered by it and launched some negativity of her own, thinking person B was to blame for how she was feeling. This is understandable because negative energy has to go somewhere. We feel justified to take the negative action because it seems like it will work. And even though we feel justified by the negative behavior because it releases our negative energy, it doesn’t lead to a positive outcome and thus a good relationship or morale, which is actually what most people want.

An old colleague of mine used to ask “Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?” You can launch a sarcastic comment thinking that you are right (and maybe you are), but this leads to unhappiness. So if you want unhappiness in others, then you are fee to keep being sarcastic. I posit too that launching sarcasm might make you feel right, but it doesn’t have you feeling happy because ultimately you have transgressed your values of being a kind, supportive, loving person. If you actually care about other people, which I have found to be 99% true, then maybe some happiness would be a better course of action. So here is the same scenario managed a lot better:

Persona A is inadvertently doing something that has person B emotionally upset. Person B knows he is triggered, and wants to be sarcastic. He stops himself though from launching a diatribe to person A. He calms himself down knowing that taking an action from a triggered place probably won’t be the best course of action. So he shuts his door and takes a few minutes to take some deep breaths. When he calms down he asks himself what he really wants from person A, what his desires or needs are. He then thinks about how to approach person A as respectfully as he can to address the situation. He realizes that avoiding the issue is just as negative for himself as sarcasm because change won’t happen, and he really wants something to change. So, he puts his feelings and desires into a feedback statement and musters up the courage to take the risk to deliver it to person A. He does this in a conducive setting and thinks about feedback as a constructive tool. He thinks about it as a gift. He is looking for a win/win. He delivers the feedback and person A graciously takes the feedback and a good dialogue ensues. Person A hadn’t realized the negative impact she was having on person B and she commits to changing something about her behavior that was irking person B. She does this not out of obligation or pressure, but because of the value of the information person B gave her and the value of the relationship.

These two scenarios are in direct contrast to each other. The first one happens all the time in organizations, and in relationships in general. It may not be sarcasm, but it could be stonewalling, yelling, aggression, lying, etc. As I said before, triggers have their own logic. The negative energy needs a conduit, a pathway to get resolution to itself. However, the negative energy has the seed of change in it, but it gets obscured because we don’t like these kinds of feelings, so we react to them. This reaction is where the rubber hits the road in my work. This is where we need to take 100% responsibility for what we are feeling and then what we do with those feelings. By being self-aware, we can calm down enough to think about the seed of change and then give that seed some sun. Most times others will see this seed and want to let it grow too.