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Hot Button Issues – Fascinating!

I was recently listening to someone share a hot button issue for them, a specific customer scenario that really got under her skin. As she described it, the tension in the room escalated. This person became so animated when describing the past situation that she became red faced with frustration. And because emotions spread like viruses, others in the room started getting tense.

Why do some situations get to us on such an emotional level that even describing the situation days, months, or even years later takes us right back to the same negative vibe, while other situations don’t?

The answer is triggers, plain and simple. As humans, we are susceptible to becoming emotionally impacted by certain comments, phrases, or scenarios, especially when they evoke a fear. However, instead of acknowledging that something is happening within us (triggering), we tend to further escalate the situation by looking to blame the other for what we are feeling. Included in the list of people we blame for our own emotional triggering is the customer service person who wronged us, the coworker who won’t do it our way, the receptionist who won’t grant us access, and the barista who hands us the wrong order.

Yes: it may be a fact that the service was lacking or that access was denied. But when our reaction is over the top and out of proportion to the action, we’ve been triggered.

The person I was talking with wanted the other to do something differently, the way she believed they “should.” And she was hooked into changing them and getting them to “do it the right way.” I get that, and I empathize with her. However, we don’t ever get to have any control over another person. The only person we can manage is ourselves. Attachment to what another “should” do is wasted energy that actually perpetuates our own triggering.

She wasn’t going to hear that from me that day because she had triggered herself just by recalling her situation. Her body chemistry was literally going through a physiological process, and she could not hear that there was an avenue to shutting it down. In the simplest of terms, that process involves hormones being released (adrenaline and cortisol) that trigger the fight-or-flight response in our brain. In other words, just by remembering the situation, she again triggered her fight-or-flight energy. In her case, it was fight mode.

When we’ve been living in our triggered response mode for many years, it can be comforting. Our body feels productive, like we are taking action when we are in that space. Unfortunately, we are neither solving problems effectively nor setting ourselves up for long term health and wellness. And frequently our continual crisis and drama state is making focus, problem-solving, collaboration, and innovation more difficult for those around us as well.

The fight-or-flight response is natural and was very valuable back in the day when there was a very real risk of a saber-toothed tiger getting our baby (or getting us). It was a survival tool. As the chemicals flood our system, oxygen-rich blood is rerouted from the analytical, problem-solving side of our brain to big muscle control so we can either physically defend ourselves or flee the scene, whichever is required.

Today the chances of a saber-toothed tiger threatening our loved ones is slim, however fight or flight lives strong. As evidenced by the interaction above, flight or flight can even be triggered by talking about something that happened in the past, something as simple as a customer service situation.

What causes one customer interaction to be so triggering and another to not trigger you at all? When answering this question, our desire is to look to the other person in the interaction with us. What about them makes us respond so badly? But the truest and most powerful answer lies within ourselves. The more impactful question is, “What about this interaction feels familiar to me? What am I fearing losing (power, control, pride, money, security, peace, reputation, happiness, etc.) if I don’t “win”? And how am I responding to that trigger?

Just noticing that you’re triggered (the earlier in the process the better) allows you to become fascinated by the protective process your body chemistry has activated on your behalf. There is no one to blame; it’s just chemistry. To clear out the chemistry take these simple (and quick) steps:

  • Notice

  • Ground yourself

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and out your mouth

  • Acknowledge what is absolutely true in this moment

Step One: Noticing means become familiar with what a trigger feels like in your body. Maybe your stomach gets jumpy or your chest tightens. Perhaps you feel weak in the knees. Every one of us feels the trigger response differently. One woman I know gets a pain in her big toe. Generally the sensation you feel is the same each time. Get familiar with it.

Often we’ve labeled the sensation as an emotion or reaction to an underlying emotion like “stress” or “anxiety.” Emotions are simply vibrations manifested in our body that we create a story around and then label. Think about excitement and anxiety. They are very similar vibrations in the body labeled differently depending on the context.

Once you become familiar with what the trigger sensation feels like in your body, you will notice it earlier and earlier in the process. Then you can simply say, “Oh that’s fascinating. I’m getting triggered again” and then take the following steps to offset it.

Step Two: Grounding yourself is the simple act of connecting into the present moment. Take a minute right now and feel your feet connecting to the floor. Or if you are reading this in bed or seated, feel where your body connects with the fabric. Literally feel it. Notice where your skin or shoes or clothing meets the surface that is rising up to support you. Where are you working too hard? And where do you sink in? Release any tension in your body and sink in a little deeper. Let your body be supported. Let go. Connect. Ground yourself in this moment.

Step Three: Inhaling through the nose has many scientifically proven benefits for the brain including improved memory and emotional balance. Additionally, because nasal passages are smaller than the mouth, the flow of air to the lungs is slower. This allows the lungs to process the maximum amount of available oxygen and exhale more slowly. During the fight-or-flight response, oxygen-rich blood to our brain is reduced and rerouted to large muscles. Efficiently and slowly absorbing as much oxygen as possible with each breath is the remedy to offset the chemistry of fight or flight.

Step Four: Acknowledging what is absolutely true in this moment is now easier since your brain is again receiving the oxygen-rich blood required for accessing a situation, problem-solving, and other complex cognitive processes. There is more space for solutions to appear. By grounding yourself in what is true and dismissing what is storytelling, you minimize future tripping. Future tripping only serves to arouse fears that feed triggering. Let it go by staying in what is true right now.

Here is an example. If a customer service agent is struggling to find my hotel reservation, I won’t have a place to sleep tonight. If I don’t have a place to sleep tonight, I won’t be ready for my big meeting tomorrow. If I don’t do well at the big meeting tomorrow, I won’t make the sale. If I don’t make the sale, I could lose my job. If I lose my job because I didn’t make the sale, I won’t get hired anywhere else. I mean, who hires failing sales people? If I don’t get hired anywhere else I will become financially ruined. If I become financially ruined, I will be homeless! THIS CUSTOMER SERVICE AGENT IS GOING TO MAKE ME HOMELESS!

Sounds ridiculous, right? Who thinks like that? However what actually happens is that our brain takes a shortcut from “the person can’t find my reservation” to “homeless!” As some say, “Zero to Sixty” in less than 30 seconds. I’m triggered by my fear. And the next thing I know, I’m screaming at the person who is trying to solve the problem because in my future tripping state, my whole entire future is tied into them finding my reservation.

Grounding myself in facts is remembering what’s true right now:

  • I’m at the hotel.

  • The agent is looking for the reservation.

Those are the only two facts that are true in this moment. Remaining in a space free of triggers allows me to participate in creative thinking and problem-solving, if need be. Suddenly I remember that I have the reservation confirmation in my phone, or that a client made the reservation and maybe it is in their name.

Because emotions spread like a virus, I can help keep the environment emotionally clean, clear, and stable so the agent is able to do their best work. If I were to pollute the agent with my fight-or-flight energy, suddenly they can’t think clearly either because oxygen-rich blood stopped going to their brain. In their triggered state they have no desire to help me solve my problem, they just want to get away from me as quickly as possible.

See the cycle?

Accepting that the fight-or-flight response, a tool given to us for survival, is within us and is easily activated is powerful information. Being able to recognize when you are being triggered is empowering. And having a simple set of steps to manage yourself in challenging situations is how you get to a state of ease.

This process is free. With practice and intentionality it can become second nature. What does your trigger feel like? I’m certain it’s fascinating!

Originally posted on

Have you had to work with that person who is too valuable to fire, but whose communication and leadership style continually makes others cringe and puts the company at risk? Beth Wonson’s unique combination of experience as a business expert, non-profit leader, 20 years consulting on team development, organizational change, and coaching leadership make her the go-to person for transforming personnel liabilities into personnel assets. “In my experience, no one truly wants to be the company bully, they just aren’t self-aware enough climb out of it. Their increasing isolation causes more and more drama within the organization. Human Resource staff feel powerless and over time, team members and colleagues choose to leave the organization. The remedy is simply to get this person the right coach. The coach who knows how to give them the hard feedback and will stand in the fire with them through the change process”. Wonson’s unique methodology combines brain-based research, experiential education and coaching to engage and empower individuals and teams to overcome perceived barriers and gain success.

Beth and her team work with businesses, non-profits and individuals across the United States.


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