Some months back, my client told me he was considering re-shaping the work we were doing together in his organisation. Despite knowing this client well, and having a good working relationship, in that moment, my brain went to panic stations. First port of call had me imagining that this engagement was being closed down ahead of schedule. I felt slightly nauseous for a moment, and literally on the back foot. I was triggered. My body was shouting 'run' even while my mind was telling me to listen to what was being said.
As it turns out, nothing in the subsequent conversation was cause for alarm. He in fact extended our commercial relationship. But in that initial moment, in that split second, my reptilian brain took control in order to save me from the perceived threat of not being accepted.
Perhaps my story seems facile to you but think of your own life for a moment. I don't doubt you can point to similar experiences where your initial response is out of proportion to what is actually happening. This is how you know you are being triggered. And in that moment, you aren't a lot of use to anyone, let alone yourself.
As evolved as we like to think ourselves as homo sapiens, we are social creatures whose primal brain – the limbic system – is still very much in control of our daily lives. While our brain also includes the pre-frontal cortex responsible for thinking, there are more neural pathways to the limbic system. We are quite literally wired to not be surprised.
There remain situations that will trigger our limbic system into a fight, flight or freeze response. Along with taxes and death, we can guarantee that life will continue to trigger us.
The actual triggers depend on who we are and what matters to us. So we may value being needed, respected, or in my case above, accepted. Or fairness or consistency may be the touch points. And if any of these are threatened in a conversation, then off we go.
Triggers dramatically shape our behaviour. We will think, act and do in accordance to what we think is going on in that moment. Certain situations can provoke even the most rational among us into behaving in ways that are inconsistent with our own self-interest – in business and in life, and this can be disastrous. The difference between success and failure can be as simple – and as hard – as mastering triggers.
We need to get out of our heads and into our bodies to learn how to manage such situations. Recovery starts with noticing your own experience. In the moment after being triggered, imagine yourself a sports commentator (without the judgment) analysing the sensations within your body. Let yourself really feel what is going on for you physically.
The next step is check in on your assumption or belief about this situation or the person. For me, I thought I was going to lose a client, and that would bring some financial uncertainty to my world. Reacting as if this assumption was true in that moment would probably have me being hostile or defensive – neither useful to a long-term client relationship.
As simplistic as it sounds, this awareness and breathing can shift your emotional state and put you in a place where you can choose to respond.
We will continue to be triggered as our limbic systems seeks out threats. It is often when our values – what really matters to us – are threatened or compromised. And as hard as it is, as leaders we need to know our triggers in order to manage ourselves for the sake of those around us.