Regardless of our best intentions, it seems that certain people or situations trigger a reaction. Either we have a kind of knee-jerk, unconscious reaction that creates a mess, or we freeze in our tracks, trying not to have a reaction at all. This freeze up is kind of like “not thinking about a pink elephant,” and you know how well that works.
The subject of being triggered or triggering others is too broad to take on in its entirety here, so for now let’s focus on how words and language affect triggers, or become triggers in themselves, and what we can do to minimize conflict and maximize effective communication. Those of you familiar with my work, whether through coaching, writing, or speaking, know that circumventing these triggers is a big part of what I help people do. In many ways, it’s like defusing a bomb. You need to either clip the wire, or re-wire the triggers themselves.
Low Hanging Fruit
There are some verbal triggers that are so general as to not even require specific language. You can put this information into action right now.
For the most part, people are pretty focused on themselves (I hope I’m not shocking anyone here) and a great deal of what we take personally is absolutely not about us. You see, we as a people tend toward projection (again, big surprise?) The expression “it takes one to know one” and “it takes a thief to catch a thief” were born of this kind of projection and extrapolation. So what’s the action step?
Whenever someone accuses you of something (their words dripping with judgment) you can pretty much be assured that they’re telling you exactly what they can’t stand about themselves. This is an extension of the old “ if that were me” projection.
For example, someone says, “you can’t make it as an artist!” Rather than reacting to whether or not you feel you can, or you want their support, or any of the other roads you could go down, the most likely meaning of their statement was: “I don’t think I could make it as an artist.” Their motivation for trying to dissuade you is a whole other conversation. What you need to do is remember to not take it personally, and listen to their “confession of anxiety” in their accusation or judgment.
When you recognize that they’re indeed confessing their own anxieties, it’s much easier to feel compassion toward them, rather than be triggered into defenses or arguments.
The Other Side – Their Triggers
As communication is a very two-way street, there are things that you may say that can trigger the other person. This is a far more difficult situation to avoid (unless you know them and their triggers well). You can have the most innocent of intentions, and it’s almost shocking when they blow up at you, or withdraw and disappear.
Again, let’s look at an example. Let’s say you’re trying to connect with someone, and you share a common ailment or issue with them, with the intention that this commonality will bring you closer together. If the other person hasn’t reconciled or come to terms with this issue, your intention could be completely lost on them, and all they hear is you pointing out what they’re miserable about.
This pushes their trigger, and they go reactive. There’s not a lot you can do here, except to apologize for pushing their button, and probably back off. Trying to “correct their perception” will rarely work in the moment, because they’re too consumed with their own reaction. The play button has been pushed on their internal audio device, and there’s no room for input.
There are very specific triggers that are primarily semantic in nature, and these can be dealt with using more conscious communication. As our view of the world shapes the words, images, and metaphors of our language, you can reverse engineer from the words back to a person’s perspective.
If someone sees the world in very qualitative ways, with many possibilities and contingencies, speaking in absolutistic terms can trigger them into reactive behavior. The opposite is of course just as true, and an absolutistic person is very triggered by qualifying language. They’re likely to react with “It is or it isn’t!!” “Give me a yes or a no answer!”
Being able to recognize the linguistic cues that people give you, so that you can match them in their communication style gives you the ability to create much faster rapport with them. Being able to create better rapport may be the single most important skill-set you can develop for your business and personal relationships.
The reason people buy from you, listen to you, hire you, or want to date you, is how easily they feel they can connect with you, and most importantly of all, how much they feel that you “get them” and their experience. We all want to be heard or seen, and when you can give someone that, you’re immediately on their team.