Identify and name what sets you off – and learn how to respond differently 

by Jan Lipsky, FACHE, SHRM-SCP, CEIC People Development Partner, ImagePartners, Inc.  

You’re pressed for time in the morning and the kids don’t have their shoes on. Someone cuts you off while driving on a busy highway. You have to ask someone to repeat what they said several times. Your boss gives you a last-minute assignment and he knows you have guests coming for the weekend.

What do all these scenarios have in common? They are triggers.

What is a trigger?

Triggers are events that tap into our negative feelings. We become frustrated, angry, sad, or irritated. The number of reactions is as high as the number of triggers. Everyone has triggers.

When delivering sessions on emotional intelligence, I like to ask the participants what their triggers are. The examples above are some of the examples I’ve heard recently. They’ve also shared crying babies, a cell phone ringing in someone’s purse, being rushed, having a bad hair day, doing the same thing twice knowing that it won’t work, last minute requests and changes, people making repetitive noises, and a family member eating their favorite leftovers. And then there’s difficult communication with a mother-in-law (or spouse, sister, brother, mother, father, etc.). Company without notice. The list is really endless.

Can I be the trigger?

Yes, it’s true — sometimes we are the trigger. In her book The Power of EQ, Karen Nutter shares an example. Every morning, she would approach her boss with questions when her boss first arrived to work. The boss just wanted to settle in and complete her morning rituals — entering her office, organizing her briefcase contents, sipping that first cup of coffee. Instead of being able to start her day in peace, Karen was at her office door. A simple conversation helped Karen realize she was the trigger of what she perceived as her boss’ unreasonable bad mood.

Being self-aware

Before we problem solve, we need to recognize our own triggers (and if we might be someone else’s!). Being self-aware is the first step to being emotionally intelligent. That means being aware of our own emotions and knowing what brings them to the surface. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, the authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, suggest considering your emotions as neither positive or negative. Keep a journal and make some notes throughout the day on your feelings. Think about what caused your blood pressure to rise, what made you upset or angry, what threw you for a loop. Start looking for patterns over time. It may be immediately obvious that every time you’re in traffic and someone cuts you off, you find yourself shouting—or even worse, speeding after the offender and gesturing or honking! When you see those patterns, you have identified one of your triggers.

Other triggers may not be so obvious. It takes time to become self-aware, to be honest with ourselves about our emotions and behavior, and recognize how that behavior impacts ourselves and others in the face of a trigger. In his book Emotional Intelligence- Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman wrote about an exercise in a 5th grade Self-Science class in the 1960s. (These type of social science or life skills classes were pioneered in that era.)  Students started the class by identifying how they felt on a scale of 1-10 and defining that feeling with a few words, for example, “Ten, I’m jazzed, it’s Friday”. Think about that when you recognize you’re being triggered – where are you on the trigger scale, and how would you define how you feel?

We live in a complex world with many demands on us and our time. We can learn to manage and sometimes even prevent many of our triggers, but the first step is identification. Become more self-aware and then we can focus on self-regulation. And drive safely!

Where to Find Assistance

If you need assistance identifying your triggers or have interest in learning more about emotional intelligence, you may want to work with a coach. ImagePartners assists executives, C- suites and work teams to be more self-aware, self-regulated, improve their communication skills and thus their productivity.