The work that I do is often contentious and filled with emotional triggers, whether in couples therapy, family therapy, divorce mediation, or a collaborative divorce. My clients are often at their worst point emotionally and struggle to manage these intense feelings. Time and time again, I see people being emotionally triggered and lashing out defensively. While I understand this response, it is never helpful, almost always escalates the situation, and often reflects poorly on the person lashing out. We are emotional beings. We are all triggered at times. So, when this happens to you, in any situation, how can you respond in a better manner, that is healthier for you and more productive for the situation?

  1. First, Zip It. Yes, Zip It. Really, please, Zip It. Responding reflexively in the moment most often means that you will be responding defensively, from a place of emotional flooding. And that never turns out good. Not only do your feelings and concerns most often get lost in the outpouring of emotions but you also often end up being perceived as the “emotional” one, which is most often not the case. You are most likely a rational, lovely person that is letting their emotions control them.
  1. Now that you have not immediately responded, take time to settle and calm down. If you are being triggered in person, you can do this by stepping out of the room or by saying that you are not ready to respond at this time. If the triggering communication is by email, text message, Facebook post, or some other manner that is not face-to-face, even better, as you have time to respond, if you so choose. You can wait a day or two to respond to that email. In fact, if you do so, it is likely that you will be able to respond in a more calm and logical manner and therefore it is more likely that you will be heard.
  1. Change your belief system. You are not a victim. While you may not be able to control the situation or the other person’s actions and reactions, you can change your actions. No matter the situation, you do have the power as to how you respond. Never relinquish this power.
  1. Explore what is being triggered. Recognize that emotional triggers are just that, they are triggering past negative emotional experiences. Do you feel that others are judging you as a bad parent and this hit that button? Do you feel that your spouse never seems to be appreciative of your contributions and this hit that button? Do you feel that your aging mother is never satisfied no matter how much you do for her and this hit that button?
  1. Separate what you are feeling versus what you are thinking. Notice in the above examples, these actually are not feelings but thoughts. If someone says to you, “I do not agree with your parenting decisions,” you might be feeling hurt and angry. Those are valid feelings, as your feelings are your feelings. Yet what are your thoughts? Are you thinking, “Okay, so we disagree about parenting styles” or are you thinking, “I can’t believe they called me a bad parent?”
  1. Once you recognize your thoughts, evaluate them for logic and assumptions. In the above scenario, “I do not agree with your parenting decisions” does not = “You are a bad parent.” Now maybe that really is what the other person is trying to convey. Yet in my years of experience, that is not often the case. Rather the issue is most often the assumptions we make about the intentions and meanings of the other person’s communications. These assumptions only escalate our emotional responses. We cannot know what the intentions of the other person are, only how we perceive their words.
  1. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When emotionally triggered, this may be extremely difficult to do yet that is precisely one of the benefits of allowing yourself time to respond. Think about, where was this person possibly coming from, why might they have stated this, what might their experiences in this situation be? You do not have to agree with these alternative thoughts, just explore them and recognize that we all have different perceptions. This can help build empathy for other viewpoints that are discrepant from ours.
  1. Get help. We are often blind to our weaknesses and challenges. Know that recognizing your weaknesses does not mean you are weak. Quite the opposite, it is a show of strength. So, whether from family, close friends, a religious leader, therapist, or some other support system, seek guidance in identifying your triggers and assumptions and enhancing your ability to both manage your emotional response and respond appropriately when warranted.
  1. Evaluate whether or not you should respond. Sometimes we want to respond just to defend ourselves. This is noble yet it is coming from the place of our ego. Think about what are the consequences if we do not respond and what is the purpose of responding. If you can think of a good reason to respond, that is not ego related, such as letting the other person know how you perceived their communication, then go ahead and respond. If not, then your response is ego-driven and Let It Go!
  1. If you have decided to respond, when you do, respond in a non-emotional, business-like manner, expressing your experiences. Do not express assumptions. Do not blame the other person. Do not criticize the other person. Rather, use “I” (feel, experienced, etc.) statements and ask questions like, “What did you mean by…” Engage in a dialogue of experiences, perceptions, and intentions rather than a battle of who is “right” and “wrong.”