Terms, Triggers, And Intentions
Now let’s dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key concepts below:
Different people will communicate differently, and may say things that lead to strong reactions from other people. It just happens. What we do next is what’s important.
Sometimes people will try to upset 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 communication could be truly hurtful.
Sometimes the reactions people have to the things we say or do seem really out of proportion.
That’s because these so-called “triggers” often have more to do with big-picture historical experiences and not just whatever is happening right now.
For example, if you were the 1,000th person to call me “Shawn” and not “Shane,” there would be a good chance it would make me REALLY unhappy. The weight of those other 999 misnomers might make your ONE honest mistake feel a lot worse to me than you’d expect.
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.
When something uncomfortable is said, all parties have a responsibility if we want to keep our relationships in The Zone:
Responsibility of the injured party: If you’re upset by something someone says, your responsibility is to 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.
Responsibility of the offending party: If you’re given feedback by someone who’s felt upset by something you’d said or done, your responsibility is to 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 upset 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 upsetting 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.
In the end, the best way to deal with “triggers” is to not frame them as triggers.
Remember that words are words, and events are events.
Words and events may hurt, but they don’t control your reaction.
Things are only “triggers” to you if you let them control you.
Try to remember that discomfort often leads to growth—just as cognitive friction is exactly what leads to new ideas. So the more you can hang in there when things get uncomfortable, and talk through tough situations rather than running away from them, the better things can go. (Even actual trauma leads to growth more of the time than it leads to long-term stress, according to psychology research. So give people credit—and if you or they do need help for trauma, make sure to seek it, of course!)
Just practicing the habit of reframing “triggers” this way in your own mind and vocabulary can go a long way to helping you and others be more deliberate in your reactions to painful events.
A healthy team operates from the assumption that everyone has good intentions. So if someone says something that hurts someone else, everyone must start from a place of assuming that good people don’t intend harm. (Of course, if someone does intend harm, they probably don’t belong on the team much longer. But we can’t read minds, so we shouldn’t assume someone’s intentions without asking them.)
Instead of fighting fire with fire, a good team digs into what happens and decides how to avoid harm next time.