by Rachel Vilsack

Are there things or people at work who “push your buttons,” causing you to have a strong emotional reaction? Understanding who (people) and what (situations) push our buttons can help us identify when we’ve been triggered and take some corrective action. This helps us build emotional intelligence on the job, which helps us work better in teams, manage change more effectively, and build trust with coworkers.


To begin, it’s important to know that having buttons, or emotional triggers, is normal. Often our emotional triggers were programmed long ago to deal with something that happened to us. So, when a situation happens now, we react in a very predictable way. I get frustrated when my bus is running late or irritated that a co-worker interrupted me when I was working on a project. The downside is that our emotional brain can take over our thinking brain when threatened, which leads to problems. A previous blog post explored how this works.

Ultimately, the reasons we are triggered have to do with values and needs. If you hate it when your co-worker says something critical about you, then you value approval. If you don’t like to be ordered around, you value independence. The conditions under which these sensitivities arose may no longer be relevant in your life, especially at work. Furthermore, our automatic responses can be harmful. It’s more difficult to work in a team or build trust with coworkers if our reactions to certain people or situations are based on solely on emotions.

Instead of going into a reactive state of mind when someone pushes your buttons, you can notice when it’s happening and take steps to self-manage. These steps might include:

  • Taking a deep breath – Notice any physical signs that you are triggered, like a clenched jaw or rapid heartbeat. (I have a sign at my desk that reminds me to pause and breathe. It’s helpful to look at if I get a phone call that pushes my buttons!)
  • Count to 10 – Try to manage in the moment by creating a pause and quieting the mind.
  • Sleep on it – Instead of sending an emotionally charged email, wait until the next day to see if what you wrote is really the best response.
  • Remain curious – You might be tempted to implode (shut down, remain quiet, etc.) or explode (yell, lash out, etc.); instead remain curious by listening to what the other person is saying.
  • Own your feelings, seek some separation, and reach an agreement on when you will reconnect. Notice if you’re owning your feelings or blaming someone else. If it’s blame, you might want to create some distance and talk later.

Of course, work conflicts arise that may require us to confront a coworker. A forthcoming post will explore how to have a successful and courageous conversation when that happens.