Four Minutes That Birthed An Emotional Trigger  


I will never forget one of the first times I conducted a choir. The music director, at the church of my youth, gave me permission to join the choir for a rehearsal and conduct a piece they were learning. I can still see myself that day—my hands shaking, my mouth dry, and my nerves frazzled. I stood before the choir, a 19-year-old music major, trying to make my way through the composition. I missed several cues and, I’m sure, had a somewhat “sick to my stomach” look on my face.



At the end of the piece, the 100 adults in the choir showed kind support by clapping for me. I was pretty sure at that point I wouldn’t throw up. But then, just as the kind gesture ended, the music director walked over to me and, in front of 100 adults, said, “That was pretty good, Dave, but now let me show you how it’s really done.” I froze in humiliation as I walked to the side of the room and watched him conduct the choir in what proved to be four of the longest minutes of my life.


Back in my dorm later that night, I was mortified. I was shaken. It seems silly now, but it wasn’t then. I questioned whether or not I should even be a music major. His simple words shot to the core of my insecurities and my hopes.


I was able to overcome this experience and continue my studies as well as my life. At 52, the incident seems trivial. But it has remained with me and contributed to one of my negative emotional triggers. To this day, when I witness a person– in positional power– diminish another person with less power, it infuriates me. If I’m not careful, this trigger can bring out in me the very behavior I loathe.


What’s one of your emotional triggers?


Anatomy of An Emotional Trigger?


We develop triggers through experience or preference. Perhaps we are introverted and people who over-talk are a trigger. On the other hand, maybe we are extroverted and our trigger is people who remain silent. Maybe we were frequently yelled at during a formative time of life, and now yelling is a trigger. Maybe one of our family members has a personality that clashes with our own. When we find a similar personality out in the world, it triggers a big reaction.


Whatever the reasons that shape our triggers, it’s important to understand how and why they affect us. We do this first by noticing how our triggers are connected to an experience or preference. For example, the diminishing words of the music director, not to mention the diminishing words of other authority figures, have had a great impact on me over the years. It has caused me to be sensitive to people diminished by “the powerful.” But it’s also caused me, at times, to diminish a diminsher –giving him or her a taste of the same medicine. This overreaction has rarely done any good and only exposed my dysfunction.


The first step in reducing the power of my trigger was to notice it, as well as my reactionary behavior to it. Why does it happen? When does it happen? How do I behave when the trigger surfaces?


After we notice triggers, then we can name them. Naming triggers makes them real and helps us to own them. For example, I simply named my trigger, “diminishers.” That word represents a person, in any given circumstance, that uses power to belittle or diminish another. That person becomes a trigger for me in a way that is far bigger than the moment at hand. My reaction is as much due to my history as it is to the present situation. Naming my trigger has helped me take responsibility for this rather than blame the trigger-person for my overreactions.


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Noticing and and naming triggers is a process that happens over time.  Here are some first steps you can take to become more aware of and name your triggers:


  • Identify behaviors or people that activate you. Think about actions or situations (triggers) that consistently frustrate you and throw you off center.
  • Describe both the trigger (the action or person that activates you) and your reaction to it (your common behaviors to the trigger).
  • Name the trigger. Come up with a short phrase or one word that encapsulates the trigger.
  • Once you’ve named the trigger, notice when it surfaces. What or who is the trigger? What is occurring in the moment? Or, what is a person doing to trigger you? Be as specific as you can. The more you can detail out the situation or behavior, with concrete language, the easier it is to see it and own it.


But Wait..There’s More


Noticing and naming triggers decreases the power they have over you. But it’s not enough. Once you’ve noticed and named triggers, then it’s time to develop strategies to minimize and/or avoid your reactions. We might not be able to remove the trigger, but we can learn to reduce our reactivity to it. We’ll look at how to do that in part two.


Adapted from, Tribal Alchemy: Mining Your Team’s Collective Ingenuity. Dave Fleming. 2016.