Deal with Your Hot Buttons…or They Will Deal with You

Deal with Your Hot Buttons…or They Will Deal with You

Most of us encounter people who act in ways that can be frustrating or irritating.

Generally, people handle these situations well and go about their business.  Occasionally, though, the problem escalates and turns ugly. This happened in the recent case of a U.S. political candidate who, when asked a question by a BBC reporter, threw the reporter to the ground. Although the candidate won the election, he was subjected to considerable ridicule, had to publically apologize to the journalist, and wrote a substantial check to a fund to protect reporters.

This episode can be explained by a conflict management concept called hot buttons.  A hot button is an emotional trigger provoked by something another person says or does.  The trigger, in turn, can goad a person into reacting in destructive ways. Learning more about your own hot buttons and how you can manage them will protect you against overreacting in conflict settings.

A quick way to start is by asking yourself about what types of behaviors in other people tend to irritate you.  As you begin to get a clearer sense of your hot buttons it is helpful to further explore why they are upsetting for you.  One approach is to reflect on the values that underlie your hot buttons. These values contribute to our expectations about how people should behave.

An interesting thing about hot buttons is that they vary greatly among different people. If you work in a team, your colleagues may respond quite differently than you to the ways a new member behaves.  Learning to recognize other people’s hot buttons can help prevent you from accidently triggering someone else.

Once you understand those behaviors that can trigger irritation in you and why they do this, you are positioned to develop approaches to manage your hot buttons. The first step is to cool down the intensity of the reaction so you are less likely to react impulsively to it.  This is where the reflective processes we have already discussed come in.

This can be complemented with emotion regulation techniques that help cool down your emotions.  These include techniques like reframing the way you are interpreting the situation so it doesn’t involve the other person being seen as hostile towards you.  You replace “he must be out to get me,” with “what is a reasonable explanation for why he is acting the way he is.” Alternatively, you can take your attention off of the thoughts that are getting you angry at the moment and focus on something more positive.

Once you have calmed down enough to regain emotional composure, you can begin to think about how you want to respond to the other person. It may be important to hold them to account or to express how you are feeling about their actions, but you can now choose more constructive communications approaches to do so. You will be able to consciously choose effective ways of interacting with the other person – ones that are not goaded by your negative emotions.

We will all experience hot button situations.  Make sure that you deal with them in a manner that gets you better outcomes.  Succumbing to the negative emotions that hot buttons enflame may feel satisfying in the moment, but it almost always brings longer term problems. You will be glad when you choose to cool them down.

Craig Runde is a board member of The European Institute for Workplace Dynamics.

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