Conflict zen and managing your hot buttons

Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone? – James Thurber

Interpersonal conflict triggers

Conflict triggers are your “hot buttons,” the emotional responses set off by the words or actions of others during difficult conversations. While it’s a common expression to say, “He presses my buttons,” or “She’s baiting me,” your hot buttons say more about you than they do the other person.

You feel triggered during conflict when you perceive the other person’s words or actions as threatening to your identity in some way. Common triggers include real or perceived threats to your competence, worth, independence, and desire to be included. Beyond Blame author Jeffrey Kottler suggests that people chomp down on bait as a self-protective mechanism based on past experiences.

Your hot buttons trip you up in conflict because they cause you to misinterpret, close down, lash out or take a side trip down the blame road. They also trigger a set of emotional responses that can escalate the conflict. When you’re triggered, your brain may experience what’s called a “neural hijacking.” The brain perceives a threat, proclaims an emergency and moves into action. This hijacking occurs so quickly that the conscious, thinking portion of the brain does not yet fully comprehend what’s happening.

Everyone’s bait is a little different, so what triggers me may not trigger you. This is why blaming others for angering you isn’t very effective: you waste energy expecting them to change what they’re doing, when only you can change your own reactions.

Managing Your Hot Buttons

The conflict zen approach to moving beyond the blame game is to learn how to recognize and manage your conflict triggers:

Begin with what I call “self-work.” Keeping your balance during conflict is in large part dependent upon the reflective work you do when you’re not in conflict. Learn what triggers you and why you’re triggered — get back to the source. Skipping this self-work is like building a house without a foundation.

Notice when you’re getting triggered. In the heat of the moment, take note of your physiological state, body language and tone of voice. A “hot face,” sweating, loud voice, shaking, tears, and clenched teeth are physiological signals that you’re feeling emotionally flooded and suggest that you’ve been triggered. When you’re emotionally flooded, stop the conversation. Simple say, “I want to finish this conversation with you but can’t until I calm down a bit.” Don’t allow them to cajole you into continuing when you’re hijacked because proceeding means it’ll go nowhere good.

Find out if the threat you perceive is real. You’ll discover that you’re hyper-alert to certain kinds of slights and may be creating conflict where there wasn’t any. To find out, name the threat you perceived and ask if that’s their intention. For instance, When you took the rest of the staff to lunch on a day I was out, I experienced that as deliberately excluding me. Is that what you meant to do? (hint: the speaker is someone with an inclusion trigger…doesn’t like to feel excluded).

What triggers you?

This article was adapted from one originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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  1. says

    A good place to practice "noticing" that you're getting triggered, I find, is email. For example – if you start pounding the keys, typing more quickly, writing with way less focus, or way more paragraphs than usual, or even picking apart the incoming line by line. All these are signs to me that, even if you continue to write your reply, it would be a good idea to cut and paste what you're writing into Microsoft Word, or some other program that does not have a "Send" button.

    The beauty of this, too, is that it gives you a document of your angry or frustrated response, from which you can quickly do the "self-work" described in this blog entry. Then you get to write a different response that's more likely to get you an outcome you'll enjoy.

  2. says

    Newt, I'm with you on avoiding the "send" button in those moments. Moving over to a word processors is a great strategy because it removes the accidental send.

    I've written several other articles on conflict and email and will try to remember to link to them here once they're ported over from my old blog at

  3. says

    A therapist once gave me very good , concise advice on the subject. She said when an issue arises between you and another person, to whom you are close or attached, try ratingit on a scale from 1-10. Most of the time, you will find it to be either 1 or close to 1.
    If it happens to be around 5 in your mind, arrange a time and place to safely speak about the issue.
    If the person does not wish to do that with you, you have another issue to confront, but at least you know. Secondly, you can compose a letter in your word processor, as suggested by another responder to this article.
    Then , after editing, you can send it , or give it to that person who raised your hot buttons.
    I have used this on several occasions, and it has worked well.

  4. says

    Writing while angry may provide inspiration. However, you may also write things you normally speaking would not. Learning the hard way, I decided that from that point on to write all important messages in my wordprocessor, not in email. Let them age overnight folowwed by a possible copy/paste to my email if still worthwhile.
    I may even push send!