To Become a More Effective Communicator, Learn to Manage Your Emotional Triggers


We've all had those days when we've overreacted in response to something a colleague, client, or supplier said to us. We may have felt attacked or belittled, and so we reacted poorly. It happens to the best of us, and the best way to recover from it is to acknowledge that you overreacted, apologize for your poor behavior, and take steps to change that behavior so that it doesn't happen again.

Unfortunately, many highly intelligent and successful people acknowledge their behavior but fail to apologize or take steps to change it. Instead, they make excuses for their poor behavior: "That's just how I am; I go from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye." In some cases, they explain, matter-of-factly, why they reacted poorly. They often expect you to understand their logic and give them a pass for their bad reaction. Unfortunately, some people don't know another way to respond aside from overreacting, so their poor behavior keeps recurring.

This kind of one-dimensional response indicates that the individual has a limited ability to cope with feelings of frustration and anger, so they get triggered and overreact. They likely don't realize that their behavior is not acceptable or causes a problem for those with whom they interact. It is an old, well-established pattern that decimates their relationships and destroys the trust they've built with their colleagues, friends, and loved ones. 

Perhaps you recognize your own limits in this description? If so, please know that you can break this pattern, rebuild trust with your team, and grow into a well-respected leader.

To diminish the power of emotional triggers, practice self-awareness 

While it is important to recognize that we've all overreacted at one point or another, it is equally important to acknowledge that our emotional triggers do not excuse poor behavior. As leaders, we must take responsibility for our behavior and do the work we need to do to change that behavior. Here are three steps you can take today to manage your emotional triggers and become a better communicator:

  1. Look for themes. When you are not upset, take a moment to be self-reflective. Think about the times you have overreacted. What is the common thread? Is it how someone spoke to you? Did you feel like you were being attacked?   
  2. Examine your feelings. How did you feel during each of the scenarios you identified above? Did you feel small, stupid, invisible, or blamed? Your overreaction was in response to the negative way you felt at that moment. For whatever reason, that negative feeling seemed intolerable and triggered a strong emotional reaction.
  3. Make a plan. Once you identify what triggers you and how each trigger makes you feel,  you can create a plan to help you respond differently in the future. One of the simplest and most powerful steps you can take when you feel triggered is to hit the pause button before responding. Take a deep breath, give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and then decide on your next steps. You might ask a question to better understand the issue at hand or respectfully ask for a minute so you can walk away to calm down. It may also be appropriate to respectfully let your colleague know that you don't like the way they are speaking to you. When you plan, pause, and decide how to proceed, you respond more appropriately and are less likely to overreact.

If you follow these steps, you will expand your self-awareness, learn more about yourself, and understand your emotional triggers. The more you bring your attention to your reactions and the more you understand them without judgment, the more control you will have. That allows you to step away from making excuses and toward taking responsibility for your actions. It also builds trust with those around you, because they can see the effort you are making to change. 

It takes time and a concerted effort, but eventually, your one-dimensional reactivity will be a thing of the past.


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

A version of this article was initially published on as: 3 Keys to Managing Your Emotional Triggers at Work