Boost Emotional Intelligence by Identifying Triggers

A lot of us are not that aware of how we actually feel or why we react the way we do in many situations. Emotional self-awareness, the ability to understand what we are feeling and why we are feeling that way, is the foundation of emotional intelligence. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn how to recognize and manage emotions. Developing this skill set helps us through better interactions and relationships with other people.

Your Brain on Emotion

You may be asking, “What do you mean I don’t know how I am feeling?” Our emotional brain or limbic system started forming during our first three years of life before we developed words and rational thinking. It recorded our earliest emotional experiences. These memories are mostly unconscious, but shape the way we react to situations.

The emotional brain plays an important role in ensuring our survival. When danger is perceived, the emotional brain sets off an alarm. This alarm is advantageous if you need to react quickly to get out of the way of a speeding car.  However, this alarm is not helpful when a colleague questions your decision during a meeting.



Leaders who can handle emotional triggers are better able to navigate challenging situations. Here’s why. When you are in the middle of an emotional reaction, your emotional brain runs the show.  Your cognitive brain, which is responsible for attention, impulse control, and planning, is not playing an active role.  In other words, during an emotional reaction, you are not using your higher thinking for decisions. When emotional buttons or triggers are pushed, we tend to automatically react in a "knee-jerk" way that feels necessary for survival. Leaders who recognize this can step back and make a more thoughtful and rational decision on how to respond in a situation.



Being Aware of Triggers Is Essential to Emotional Intelligence

When we are triggered without awareness of our emotions, we react in a certain way out of habit. Our typical emotional reaction developed because we have a need we want met (conscious or unconscious). We all have needs that trigger us to react quickly (rather the thoughtfully). While specific needs vary person to person, common needs include:

  • Being in control

  • Being recognized, appreciated, and valued

  • Trust

  • Autonomy

  • Feeling competent

  • Fairness and truth

  • Being included

Strategies for Managing Triggers

Try these approaches to recognize and manage your specific triggers.

Recognize the emotion.

The quicker you recognize an emotion is triggered, the sooner you can discover if the “threat” is real or not. By taking your emotional temperature, you can take the first step toward managing your behavior. You can’t manage what you don’t recognize.

Feel it in your body.

Emotions are deeply connected with sensation. It is often easier to access emotions through the body than with the mind. Ask yourself, “Where am I feeling this strong emotion?” Leaders I work with commonly report noticing things like a racing heart, a knot in the stomach, a flushed hot face, or a tightening of voice.

Identify what triggered you.

Think about what, specifically, caused the reaction. Use the list of common triggers (above) to help you narrow down the choices or consider others that resonate with you.

Put it into words.

By verbalizing the feelings aroused, the sensations and the trigger, we can make better connections and calm down our emotional brain and bring higher thinking back online. For example, you might say to yourself, “There’s that feeling of being frustrated again...”

Practice a new reaction.

Once you are more aware of your common triggers, you can anticipate situations where they occur (e.g., when your boss reschedules your one-on-one meeting again; or when your colleague points out your mistakes in front of the entire team). Preparing yourself for the common trigger by thinking through your “ideal” reaction will loosen the grip of your emotional triggers and break the habit. For example, a leader deliberately chose to "count to 10" in meetings before responding with “Let me make sure I understand your concerns...” when someone disagreed with her point of view instead of immediately jumping in with an aggressive defense of the point.

Becoming an Emotionally Self-Aware Leader

Our knee-jerk reactions to challenging situations are well ingrained. These reactions will keep happening until we step back and look at them closely. With a little focused effort, we regain control of ourselves from our emotional brain and deliberately respond like the intelligent people we are. Not only will this emotional intelligence personally benefit us as leaders, it will also benefit our teams and companies.