We all get triggered sometimes by things other people say or do. And we have all responded in ways we regret.
Psychologist Dr. Christina Watlington tells us: “In the absence of a strong emotional vocabulary, we all resort to our behavioral vocabulary.”
In other words, if we don’t know how to express our emotions properly with words, we will do things or say things driven by those emotions. Generally, things that make the situation worse, not better.
During a company meeting a few years ago, I was triggered by someone seemingly accusing me of living the high life and working on frivolous stuff, while they worked very hard on things that really mattered. I blew up and listed off all the sacrifices I have made that have allowed our company to grow and how important my work is. It was probably the most embarrassing moment I have had in front of my team in the last five years. I came off as an ass and I ended up creating a wall that took some time to take down.
Instead of reacting like that, I should have expressed my emotions with something like: “Wow! Hold on a second. I feel really hurt and angry right now. Those comments make me feel like I am not working hard and the things I am doing to improve our culture and leadership are not important.” Things could have gone much better in that meeting had I expressed myself this way instead of blowing up and saying hurtful things that suggested my work is more important than everyone else’s.
The key is to use what educator, leadership guru and entrepreneur Dr. Malik Muhammad calls “affective statements”. These are statements that express your emotions. They always start with “I”. This prevents you from starting with “you”. You want to express your feelings first. Then you connect your feelings to the behaviour that caused you to feel that way, as I wish I had done above.
So, if your spouse came home late when you had a nice dinner ready, you may say: “I really felt unloved and unimportant when you came home an hour late and missed the nice dinner I made for you. I worked really hard on it and it all went cold.” This is the alternative to sulking quietly or blowing up in anger about the food going cold. The real issue is the feelings, so express the feelings. This gives the other person an understanding of what their actions have done to you, without them feeling attacked. This is a much better place from which to start an important discussion.
I find these statements a great way to handle my initial reaction to things that trigger me. Much of the time, the outcome is much better than if I had started by doing or saying something rash or hurtful to express my emotions.