What happens when we are triggered?

This week I’ve been working with a couple of clients about what happens when they are triggered and the impact of this on those that work with them.

When I talk about being triggered,  I’m referring to a state of being that is out of norm –often describe this as the shadow side of leadership. It’s when we are no longer in flow, when our less than helpful emotions take over. There’s a lovely piece of work by Esther and Jerry Hicks on the Emotional Guidance System. They describe 22 different emotional states that range from ‘Fear, Grief, Depression, Powerlessness’ (no. 22) up to ‘Joy, Appreciation, Freedom’ (no. 1). Their insights are that rather than being told to “pull yourself together” or “think positivity and all will be well” there’s a more gradual and helpful shift, taking one emotional step at a time. (There’s a lovely summary here:

Anyway, when we are triggered, we are usually operating from a below the line or negative emotional state. Not only do we feel out of sorts, but unfortunately our emotions are forever leaking how we are actually feeling to those around us.  (It can take a few seconds for our conscious brains to catch up with our feelings).

Why do we get triggered?

Firstly why do we get triggered. My belief is that the majority of humans want to do the right thing. Leaders really care about their work. They care about achievement, they care about doing the right thing, they care about making a difference and seeing the results. And this passion sits deeply within their core.  When things are going well, they are able to ignite others, to inspire a future state, to engage them to follow and to understand the desires and motivations of their teams. Emotionally, they are in a powerful and magnetic state.

But of course, work is never smooth sailing. We are constantly being hit with a barrage of issues, of crises, of people challenges, of supplier issues, of stakeholder demands. We have to be tough and resilient. We can’t let it ‘get to us’. We have to keep picking ourselves up, proving we are strong, and driving to get to the answer.

The impact of being triggered

So, back to my clients. One client has recently had a 360 report. It was a tough one. And when we talked it through, he opened up and shared how this wasn’t his natural state at all. That he cares so deeply about what he does. He absolutely believes in the organisation, in his role and he can see a clear vision for what needs to be. And he recognised that he was not operating from his best self. His deep passion for what he wants to do and to change had turned into deep frustration. A sense that everything was wrong. Very few people understood the urgency. The result? He was interfering in far too much. He was going around people. He was changing his mind almost on a daily basis. His frustration was leaking everywhere (he thought he had it under control). And unfortunately his reputation was being affected, morale had dropped off and productivity was way off where it needed to be.

This is the power of our emotional state. One of the key things we have to do as leaders is to raise our awareness not only about when we operate from our best self-state, but also the opposite. Because once we move into a negative emotional place (when that inner voice is very loud and very critical) this will drive our behaviours even if we say the right words. We are out of alignment. Once out of alignment, we quickly lose the trust of others and potentially our credibility.

Another client is also operating from a place of deep passion. And a frustration that they are not seeing the results quickly enough. An ill thought through response, a flippant comment, a close down of discussion. These are the small micro behaviours that leak how we are feeling and more times than not cause others to shut down too.

Usually, when we are triggered, we don’t catch up until damage has been done. Or at least cracks have started to appear.

So what can be done?

Here are a few tips for you, if you notice you are being triggered:

  1. Press Pause.

I can’t tell you how helpful this is. It sounds easy and obvious. But stop and breathe. Notice where you are breathing from. My guess is that it will be from your chest area. You need to get more air into your body by breathing into your abdomen. Breathe in and out of your abdomen for up to 5 seconds. You’ll notice an instant lightening; a calming of the mind and your thinking will feel freer too.

2. Decide on your Emotional State

Next up you need to decide what emotional state you want to be. Where on that emotional guidance system do you want to position yourself. To be accepted? To be understood? To be clear? To be connected? There are a myriad of emotional states. Once you know how you want to be, there’s a little bit of magic that happens because our bodies start to respond to the feeling we want to create.

3. Keep a Journal

Start reviewing your unique triggers by keeping a journal. Capture what happened, who was there, what was said, and what you noticed about your response. With any change, we need awareness. We need to see the patterns in our behaviour. Keep this up for a few weeks. You’ll definitely glean some very helpful insights.


Being triggered helps us to learn. It helps us to identify a growth opportunity. It might not feel like it at the time, but it’s a powerful lesson for our leadership. Understanding our triggers, our reactions and the impact on others is all part of reconnecting to who we are at our core. Without these insights we will blindly race through life, wondering why when we turn around there is no one there. Take some time this week to journal and see what comes up for you and your leadership.



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