9 Steps to Help You Communicate When You're Emotionally Triggered

Updated 04/16/19
 Edward Berthelot

We all can be “triggered” time to time in our relationships.  An “emotional trigger” is a subject or action that can bring up strong emotional responses, often out of proportion to the act itself from an objective point of view.  Our reactions are frequently rooted in past experiences—the emotional predispositions or conditioned habits we have developed over time. 

When something "sets us off," it can have a long history that dates back prior to your current relationship. It is a road overly traveled along the neural pathways of our brain that creates our sensitivity to something that may not bother someone else at all. The way you respond when your partner does something you do not like will consequently influence how good or bad they will treat you in the future. Therefore, it is vital that we become more aware of our triggers and react in a way that helps, instead of hurts, the relationship.

1. Try Something Different 

Develop self-awareness that shifts your focus from how irritating or upsetting your partner is to focus instead on your reactions to it. You do not want to react in ways that never work for anybody, in any relationship. A new way of behaving may help he or she become more understanding and cooperative.

2. Always Give the Benefit of the Doubt

There is no need to jump to negative conclusions. Stay open-minded and curious as to why he or she might be thinking or acting in such a way. The situation is frequently not simply about right or wrong, but about legitimately different priorities. Try not to get defensive quickly while hearing out your partner's point of view.

3. Find the Part You Might Be Able to Understand 

Be determined to find any benign reason, even in part, for their thinking or actions, and acknowledge them.

4. Ask Yourself: What's Triggering My Reaction?  

It is OK to tell them why you are upset.  Alternatively, describe why accepting his/her behavior is challenging for you.  What's at stake for you that you must communicate? There is nothing wrong with having a gut-reaction, but it is important to ask why.

 5. Offer Reassurance

Reassure your partner that you are not trying to point out who is right or wrong or that his/her feelings do not matter.  Also, let them know that you are not saying that things have to be entirely your way. You should be open to compromise.

6. Be Collaborative 

See this as a "we" problem. Let them know that you are willing to make some changes as well and work with him/her to find mutually acceptable solutions.

7. If This Isn't Working, Stay Calm 

Don't panic or escalate emotionally. It is all right to express irritation at your partner's attitudes and clarify that you are willing to be flexible and keep an open mind, and you would like them to do so, as well.

8. If It Still Isn't Working, Maybe It's Time to Get a Little Angry 

Emphasize that you expect your partner to work as a team with you and that their attitude is not acceptable.

9. Try Again Later 

Take a break and a breath. Go back later to your partner and say something like, "That didn't go too well, do you want to try again?" Don't get lost in focusing on how to get them to see what an idiot he/she was and don't insist on an apology. Go back to step one and try again.

Getting stuck in the "who's right or wrong" perpetual cycle only creates distance and distress in your relationship. As difficult as it is to have some emotional control during these moments, it's a critical skill.  These steps are a guide to helping you communicate and be heard during those moments when it seems the hardest.  Try them out and see what works best for you and your partner. 

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