Career coach Liz Bentley: How to diffuse emotional workplace triggers

Everyone has emotional triggers. Bentley shares her advice to stay calm so you can focus on being your best self at work.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Travis W Keyes

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By Erin Delmore

"Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski is the first to admit that she understands what it takes to deal with emotional triggers at work.

“I’m going to bring up my favorite word in the whole world, because I do this, and I get this, and it's bad every time: being triggered,” Brzezinski told executive career coach Liz Bentley in an interview for Know Your Value. From processing the body’s physical reaction, to being triggered, to identifying coping strategies, Brzezinski and Bentley talked through an issue that Bentley often works through with her clients.

“I think everyone is uniquely triggered because our triggers come from our subconscious,” Bentley said.

While emotional triggers vary, they can include any topic that makes us feel uncomfortable, according to Psychology Today. When someone feels triggered, they might lash out at the person they’re speaking to, or might feel panicked and retreat into themselves.

“It's our past life, it's in our subconscious,” Bentley said. “A lot of times I find it's a lot of work to help someone find what is the source of a trigger.” She said often, the source can create a downward spiral for both people involved in the conversation.

“What I see happen in the workplace, almost all the time is, let's say you get triggered when you're in a conversation with someone and then they get triggered, and now two people are triggered,” Bentley said. “And the whole thing becomes a mess.”

Her advice is to stay calm and do everything you can not to escalate the tension.

“If you're working with someone and you notice that they get triggered over something, don't get triggered back,” Bentley said. “Stay neutral and be empathetic to their trigger and just work through it. So don't allow the ping-pong of the two triggers.”

Bentley tells her clients that the key to recognizing triggers is to identify what’s happening emotionally and physically.

“What we usually find is, first we feel it in our body,” Bentley told Brzezinski. “And when I find one of my clients is triggered I'll say, ‘Where do you feel it?’ Everyone's different. They feel it in their gut, in their neck, in their head, in their chest, so you feel a physical response because something happens that makes you upset.”

“The next thing that happens is we start to shut down our listening. We can't listen to people,” Bentley said. She calls it being “emotionally hijacked.”

Next, a person who’s triggered might lash out at their co-worker or retreat into a flurry of apologies.

“It either comes in, fight, we lean in and fight, or it comes in flight,” Bentley said. “Both of those things are the wrong responses.”

The way to stop this fight-or-flight behavior, Bentley says, is to look carefully at the source of your triggers and find out what’s really making you upset.

“When we get triggered, we want to understand, ‘Okay whatever is happening right now is not about the person in front of me, it’s not about who triggered me. It's about me, I have to own it, and I have to understand what's really going on here,” she said. “Stay in neutrality, don't go into flight, which is running. Don't go into fight which is starting to, you know, beat someone up. Just go back to trying to get your emotions under control and listen and find out what's really happening.”

Chances are, there’s an underlying source of stress that’s setting off your reaction. From difficult managers and challenging co-workers to the stresses of teamwork, there are no shortage of interpersonal situations that can be tricky. And structurally, an overwhelming workload or limited resources can lead to tension. But if an interaction sparks disproportionate anger or frustration that leaves you feeling puzzled or ashamed, Bentley says it’s worth getting to the root cause.

She recommends pausing the interaction by saying something like, “You know, right now it's not a good time for me to talk this through,” or “I need to pause.” Giving yourself an opportunity to disengage, walk away, or take a break is “a great solution.”

Beyond the workplace, experts recommend maintaining a support network of family and friends, who can lend an outside perspective to workplace issues. Eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising all builds a well of “emotional resilience,” which can add to a sense of control over stressors both inside and outside of work.