Emotional Intelligence / Conflict Management

Hot Buttons

Managing Your Fight, Flight, or Flee Reaction

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

When I was in 8th grade, I ordered a pair of sports glasses sight unseen. The description said they were blue and white and I thought “cool.” Turns out they were a really bright blue with a huge white bridge. Let’s just say they were not the cutting edge of cool. But if I wanted to see while playing basketball, that was my option. So, I wore them.

We were playing an away game and I was taking the ball out-of-bounds. The ref hands me the ball and this kid from the other school walks right behind me and snarls, “You look like a g — — -n dork.” My head snapped around and I was taken completely out of the game. The ref got my attention quickly and I passed the ball in. After the game, I found the kid and let’s just say it wasn’t one of my shining moments in emotional intelligence.

For me, that word “dork” became a hot button. It makes me angry as it triggers those memories of embarrassment and insult from so long ago. For many years, when I heard someone say dork, it didn’t even have to be directed towards me, I would spark and bristle, become angry.

When I started studying emotional intelligence, about 15 years ago, I realized what was happening. Once I recognized and acknowledged it, I was able to deal with it. I still don’t like the word but it no longer results in clenched fists and an angry step towards whoever said it.

Your amygdala is what some scientists call your “reptilian brain.” They call it that because it works on the most basic, pre-thought level. It puts your body into action before your cognitive brain even knows what’s going on. This is your fight-flight-or-freeze response.

Most people have little things which can set them off. These are called hot buttons and they activate your amygdala. Hot buttons trigger bad memories or experiences and take you there. Instead of being in the moment, you’re in that other place and reacting as if you were in that situation again. It’s unhealthy and it’s definitely not helpful. What are your “hot buttons” that make you see red? What makes you go zero-to-ballistic in nothing flat?

When we say hot buttons, this is the kind of thing we’re talking about. They may be rooted in a teenage memory or something from your early childhood or any number of things. They unleash a torrent of emotion which is uncontrolled and that can cause you problems. When we consciously know this, instead of simply letting it happen, we can take steps to control it.

Some people are better at this naturally while others struggle with it, just as some people can naturally run faster. But just because it may be easier for others doesn’t mean we can’t get better at it. Just like an athlete, we can practice and get better. Let’s talk about how we can manage these situations.

When we’re aware of these hot buttons, when we know about them and deal with them properly, now we’re in control of our emotions. Now we can use them constructively and make sure they don’t make a bad situation worse. We can respond instead of react.

For many people, feeling disrespected can be a hot button. Others get fired up when they feel someone is being antagonistic. It isn’t wrong to feel that way — it’s very natural. But when we know about these triggers, we can deal with them better.

Anticipating these things can help keep you from getting hijacked. Don’t let yourself be triggered into a fight, flight, or freeze response. Here are some techniques to help.

Take a deep breath. Crazy simple, right? But it gives you that split-second for your cognitive brain to catch up with your reptilian brain. It allows you to think, to formulate a response instead of a knee-jerk reaction. You can train yourself to do this!

Pause. Much like the deep breath, you’re simply looking for that split-second to let your thinking brain catch up with the lizard inside. This is less obvious than a deep breath which others can see. When other people see you’re struggling for control, it may prompt action on their part. For some, it will be a warning sign but for others, it will be a signal they think means they’re winning, they’re “getting to you.”

Anticipate but don’t fixate. This is when you put your powerful brain to work! When you think about what may happen, you will be better prepared to deal with it. When things are a surprise, you’re forced to react in the moment. While that’s necessary sometimes, it’s usually best avoided as much as possible.

If you’re that person at the door of a business encouraging people to wear masks, you can predict some of the things which will happen. You know there’s a chance some guy is going to come in and be grumbling about wearing that “stupid mask.” Again, this is about enabling you to respond instead of react.

When we talk about anticipating vs fixating, much of it comes down to self-talk which is a form of rehearsing (see below). When you fixate, the self-talk for you, as the grocery store employee, may go something like this, “Oh I know someone’s going to come in without a mask and as soon as they try to get in my face about it, I’m going to blah, blah, blah.” That’s not healthy and that’s not helpful.

Healthy self-talk in this situation would sound more like, “If someone doesn’t wear a mask, I’m going to remember to keep my cool, maintain that neutral body language, watch my tone of voice, and say, “XYZ.”” Note the difference in framing the situation, “I know” vs “if” — that’s the difference between fixating and anticipating. That anticipating mindset is where you want to be. A fixating mindset turns possibilities (what might happen) into probabilities (this will happen).

Rehearse. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! This is the brother to anticipate. When you can plan out your response ahead of time, you’re going to be way ahead and much better prepared. You get the chance to try different responses and see what works for you.

Players don’t just show up for a game — they practice. Actors don’t just show up for a play or to make a movie — they rehearse! Why? Because they want to be at their best! They want to give their best performance. It’s the same for you in these situations. Can you imagine an actor showing up for a Broadway production without ever rehearsing? It would be terrible!

You can use co-workers, siblings, parents, friends — find somebody. Give them the potential situation, maybe some pointers on how you want them to play the role, and then . . . practice! Have your partner try different responses — the slow burn, the flash fire, the short fuse. Go through the possibilities multiple times and try different responses. Ask them for feedback. What did they think? What made sense from their perspective? What didn’t? Then do it again!

If you can’t get a partner, rehearse in front of a mirror. Imagine what the other person might say, how they might say it and then say it like that to yourself. Then, in the mirror, frame your response. What are you going to say? How are you going to say it? How are you going to respond?

Preparing for a tense performance review? Anticipate and rehearse. Have a big discussion planned with the boss about a pay raise? Anticipate and rehearse. Ready to talk to that fellow employee who plays loud music at his desk all the time? Anticipate and rehearse.

You don’t want a tense situation to turn into a physical confrontation [fight]. You don’t want to turn and run or frantically scurry to get help [flight]. And you don’t want that deer-in-the-headlights look when someone snarls at you about the effing masks [freeze]. Remember, that amygdala is going to trigger your fight, flight, or freeze response, but with proper preparation, you will control the moment instead of it controlling you.

This is why soldiers train for battle; it’s why athletes practice for sports; it’s why actors rehearse for plays or movies. It’s all about getting their part right. You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it.

We have emotions for a reason. They help us in lots of ways, but we need to be able to control them, to harness them to help us. When we let them run wild, they can cause problems. The techniques we just discussed will help you with this.

Remember the objective is to respond, not react. We’ve all seen those people getting hijacked in the videos. They let their emotions get out of control. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Adapted and excerpted from De-Escalation (paperback https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08L4FL4VR/) or Conflict Management (Kindle https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08L6KMTY1/).

For additional information, see the Conflict Management training course here

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, taught at West Point, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Amazon pubs.

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