Improving Our Response to Triggers

We’ve all had those moments. A driver cuts you off in traffic and your temper accelerates faster than your car. You lose your patience when a problem isn’t solved as quickly as you had hoped, or you feel surprised at how irritated you become when working with a specific colleague at work.

When these negative reactions occur it can be helpful to know that they don’t just happen in a vacuum, but are usually the result of unwelcome environmental and psychological triggers in our environment – or, as Marshall Goldsmith puts it, “the people and situations that lure us into behaving in a manner diametrically opposed to the colleague, partner, parent or friend we imagine ourselves to be.” 

These triggers happen around us all the time – a constant churn – making it feel as though the environment seems to be outside our control, even if we do have a choice in how we respond. 

Often, though, the choice of how to respond leads us to do things we might regret. Some simple examples from Goldsmith: The smell of bacon wafts up from the kitchen, and we forget our doctor’s advice on lowering our cholesterol. Our phone beeps, and we glance instinctively at the screen instead of looking into the eyes of the person we are with.

 

Triggers Lead to Power Leaks

In a professional setting, we also see that triggers can impact and often undermine your use of power – what we like to call a “power leak.” 

Power leaks can lead to:

  • Lost credibility in the eyes of teammates
  • Inability to positively influence those we’re working with
  • Lost access to your own sense of personal power

Because you lose access to your sense of power and you feel threatened in these moments, you then use your power to protect and defend – a direct misuse of power.

This can come to life as micromanaging your team because you feel anxious or yelling or eye-rolling when you’re frustrated, for example. 

These types of power leaks often have the opposite effect of what you, as a leader, would typically hope for. And as your environment exerts its influence through the course of a busy day, continuously failing to connect with your audience will lead you to lose them, as you also lose sight of your good intentions. 

 

Overcoming a Power Leak

The most powerful tool for avoiding a power leak and managing unwelcome triggers is to remember that you are the only person responsible for your responses. And with a bit of work you can rewire your brain to respond differently.

In our courses we talk a lot about reflection; in fact, we just recently launched a new blog series, Reflection Fridays, where we encourage readers to take time once a month to reflect on various topics from the previous weeks. 

But when environmental and psychological triggers are coming at you all day every day, daily, or even in-the-moment reflection or self-monitoring is key to helping us improve our actions in those small moments. When you start to feel triggered, try to pause for a moment, breathe and ask yourself:

  • How is this situation making me feel? Why is it making me feel this way?
  • How do I want to respond to this trigger?
  • What is the outcome this response will elicit – and is that the outcome I want?

Once the moment has passed, take some time to reflect again on the experience, making note of how you reacted to it and what you would like to do differently next time. This process is important for your own personal development, as well as for seizing the opportunity to figure out if your response affected anyone else in a way that needs reparations. 

Our reactions to triggers can quickly become like habits which, as we know, can be hard to break. But taking these few moments to check in with yourself before (and after) you act is a great first step towards changing the way you respond to things – and avoiding the pesky power leak. This practice can also help you separate your feelings from your actions and remember, once again, that you are the only one responsible for your responses.

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