Terms, Triggers, And Intentions
Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key explanations and exercises below:
Different people will communicate differently, and may say things that “trigger” strong reactions in each other. It just happens. What we do next is what’s important.
Sometimes people will trigger us intentionally, but most people think of themselves as good people and will not automatically assume that what they say in the course of day to day communiation could be truly hurtful.
Sometimes the reactions people have to the things we say or do seem really out of proportion.
That’s because “triggers” have more to do with big-picture historical experiences and not just whatever’s happening right now.
For example, if you call me “Shawn” and not “Shane,” there’s a good chance I will get upset at you. It’s an honest mistake, and if I’m in a good place, I will give you benefit of the doubt. But you are the 1,000th person to call me “Shawn,” the weight of those other 999 might make your honest mistake feel a lot worse than this one time.
This is a low-stakes example of why triggers can be so difficult for people—especially people from minoritized groups who have lived their whole lives dealing with 1,000s of little (or big) battles that you may not have.
Because different people have had such different life paths, we cannot be expected to know everything that might be painful for someone to experience for the 1,000th time.
When something uncomfortable is said, all parties have a responsibility if we want to keep our relationships in The Zone:
If you’re triggered by something someone says, give them feedback, and give it gently with benefit of the doubt and compassion. It’s best to do this in private, so you spare them public humiliation, which is liable to make things worse or even make them resistant.
If you’re given feedback by someone who’s felt triggered by something you’d said or done, receive the feedback from a place of learning, not defensiveness. Thank them and ask them questions in a spirit of honest inquiry, so you can understand why and what you can do next time.
When giving feedback to something someone said that triggered you, it helps to identify your emotional reaction in a non-accusatory way.
The phrases “I feel like...” or “I feel that…” are usually euphemisms for “I think that…”, so it’s good to avoid these and identify your actual feelings. You feel “sad” or “angry” or “scared” or “lonely” or “uncomfortable.”
You don’t feel “like you were being mean” or “like you don’t care about me.” You may think those things. And if you do, you should own that and not hide your thoughts behind the veneer of emotion.
However, before you tell someone that you think they think a certain way, remember that you can’t read minds. It’s better to tell them how you feel and ask them what they think and feel rather than decide for them.
Practice identifying your emotional state when you are triggered—or when you get feedback after triggering someone—and separate your observation from your emotion. Explain yourself why in a way that doesn’t accuse the person or attempt to read their mind. E.g. “When you said [x], I felt sad. That’s because that term carries a lot of historical pain for me.”
Take responsibility for your own emotions. To do so, don’t tell someone, “You made me angry.” Separate what they did and how you feel. “You said [x], and I felt angry inside.”
You’ll be surprised how well good people will tend to respond to this kind of communication in a human way.
A healthy team operates from the assumption that everyone has good intentions. So if someone says something that hurts someone else, everyone starts from a place of assuming that they didn’t intend harm, and then digs into what happened and how to avoid harm next time.
Think about a time when you said something that upset someone else, even though you didn’t mean to.
Did you say what you did because you didn’t know better?
Can you understand why they had the emotional reaction they did?
Knowing that the other person is responsible for their own feelings, could you have said whatever it was you were saying in a way that did not trigger them, if you could go back in time?
Think about a time when you were triggered by someone’s words toward you or someone you care about.
What emotion did you feel? (Remember to distinguish emotions from thoughts.)
Pretend that this person did not intend any harm. What story could you tell yourself to explain how that could be true?
Pretend you could approach this person after they said this thing and help them understand what they said was hurtful. How could you talk to them in a way that minimized the chances of them getting defensive, while making it clear how you’d like them to speak next time?