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  • Writer's pictureLeisel Douglas

Triggered and Talking

Communication is unique.

The way in which we formulate our thoughts and utilise verbal and non-verbal cues to convey our message is naturally our own and can never 100% be adopted by someone else. There is always nuance from person to person. If this is the case, then how can we determine that communicating has been effective?

At the end of the day, one of my favourite explanations as to what Communication is comes from a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.

‘Communication is the shared transference of meaning across intelligences.’ Professor Aggrey Brown.

This means, that once the message is interpreted by the recipient in the manner in which it is conveyed, then communication has taken place. Yet, there can be barriers to effective communication. Ways that either prevent us from receiving the message as it is intended or ways in which we ourselves erect a barrier for our message to be interpreted correctly. These I refer to as Communication Triggers.

I’ll use myself as a case study for this submission because while I expect triggers to happen in my personal relationships, it has never been something I associated with professional relationships until I became a businesswoman. It turns out, the ways I cope with personal triggers are also applicable to professional ones as well, because the answer is yes – they do exist. There is no line drawn in the sand between professional and personal because at the end of the day in both circumstances a common denominator is people.

Yet, some of the coping mechanisms used with personal triggers may not be deemed appropriate in a professional setting. For example, I am very open in communicating with my friends and loved ones about how I feel when they say and do certain things. Being this transparent provides them with a better understanding of my responses and places them in the best position to make any adjustments as | if they deem necessary for us to communicate effectively. It is not necessarily the same in a professional setting as oftentimes, there is a tendency to not be as open about what we require for fear of being viewed in a particular light that may not be conducive to professional growth and development.

Understanding Neurons

While I am no scientist, based on my experiences and subsequent amateur research, I can surmise the following.

Triggers can be defined as people, scents, places, harmful substances, or anything else that serves as reminders for intense or distracting emotions. Oftentimes, triggers are reminders that put people in a mental and emotional place of distress, pain, anger, frustration, and other strong emotions.

How does this work? Think of the brain as the body’s control tower. Throughout the body, there are neurons that communicate with each other through electrical signals. These neurons together, form the nervous system which provides all the commands to the different systems in your body.

The nervous system extends through your body from your spinal cord, which runs from your brain down your backbone, like the branches of a tree.

So, once we receive a sensory signal, through sight, audio, touch, taste or smell the neurons in our brain communicate with each other through these electrical signals. Based on the signal, a particular reaction is invoked which is manifested through physical and emotional reactions.

Similar sensory signals will produce similar reactions in the brain and if this leads you to a place of distress then that’s a trigger.

Triggers can come from anywhere at any time; a scene in a movie, a particular smell or song, visiting a particular place and even in the way we communicate.

Taking that into consideration, I have identified the three most common communication triggers. Again, this is from looking at my own interactions, so let me know if there is anything in this article that resonates with you as well.

For me, these triggers evoke an unpleasant enough reaction that creates a barrier to effective communication. I have found myself not really listening to what is being said as much as reacting to how it is being brought across.

Three Common Communication Triggers


How a person uses their voice, or even their selection of words can be classified as tone. It is how you communicate with your audience to get your point across. Different persons and | or different situations will call for a different style of communicating. For example, your tone when correcting a child will

be different than when connecting with friends and change again when in a professional setting.

Does your tone convey confidence, arrogance, humour, emotion, intimacy, condescension, sarcasm, or gravity? The wrong tone for a situation can result in your message being misinterpreted or completely lost as it triggers a response in the receiver that was unintended.

What do I do when I feel myself being triggered by someone’s tone?

Solution: Seek Clarification. Repeating how you received that message allows the person an opportunity to correct any misinterpretation that might have occurred. With that out of the way, we can now proceed to have a conversation. As a bonus, the communicator may realise that they need to adjust their tone for future interactions.


There are four types of communication: verbal, non-verbal, written and visual. This is how we consume messages. Some types may be more effective for you in helping you to understand what someone is trying to convey, and other types may be inappropriate given the circumstance.

I feel triggered when someone ignores my preferred method of communication for specific purposes.

Phone calls to confirm professional factors make me uncomfortable most times because I believe how we remember things will vary. I much prefer if you send me a message or an email, even if this comes as a follow up to the conversation. This way what was communicated and agreed will be available for reference at any time by either party.

This trigger is a result of past experiences where I have been expected to remember and action what was discussed based on a conversation, sometimes leading to serious consequences and fallout when I didn’t.

Solution: Ask for what you need. Being transparent will earn you the respect of your colleagues and allow for much more fruitful interaction.


There are four communication styles often found in a professional setting: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, assertive.

Here again, styles may change based on the situation. Personally, I have a standard style across the board and that’s assertive. However, through feedback, I understand that my assertiveness, especially based on my tone, can at times be received as aggression. As such, when I feel that this is happening, I quickly seek to clarify.

However, a huge trigger for me is being passive-aggressive. I believe in saying what you mean and meaning what you say. When I gather that someone is attempting to appear passive on the surface, but their communication carries a tone of subtle or indirect resentment or anger, I get upset.

Why? Because this means that I can expect a continuation and potential escalation of this passive-aggressive behaviour through sulking, withdrawal, procrastination, and an eventual refusal to communicate which can potentially threaten the project outcome and | or create an uncomfortable environment within which to work.

Solution: To be honest, I walk away from these types of encounters and choose not to respond. My reaction to this is so visceral, that I am yet to derive a coping mechanism that will not make the situation worse. I choose not to respond here, but I remain open to suggestions, so feel free to share in the comments.

Over the years, I have developed through trial and error a step-by-step response sequence for my triggers. It’s my Trigger Toolkit!

It is important to note, that triggers are a two-way street. Just as you can be triggered by someone through the above or maybe another factor of their communication, so too, you and the way you choose to communicate be a trigger to your recipient.

Once triggered, what can I do?


Identification of triggers is therefore a key in communicating better. This calls us to be both self-aware when communicating and honest with our feedback to those who are communicating with us.

If you feel yourself being triggered especially frequently then ask yourself the hard question.

Why am I responding in this way? This opens the doorway for you to examine the various aspects of how someone chooses to communicate and allows you to home in on exactly what is triggering your reaction.

Knowing is half the battle fought and w

on. Once you have identified your trigger, you’re on the path of being able to address the issue.

So, I’ve been triggered – now what?


Triggers often cause us to react in the moment as the manifestation of the distress is often so powerful that it supersedes all other thought or reason. Become intentional about pausing in the moment. While in the pause, ask yourself the questions needed to determine if this situation warrants a response. Personally, I take a couple of deep breaths in to allow myself the space and environment to process.

Fun fact: Most persons feel the need to fill the silence. Pay attention to what is done and said in the pause. It can reveal a lot.


How many times have you pushed aside how you feel because of doubt or a preference to not confront the issue? Once you have identified the trigger and the reason for your reaction, acknowledge it.

For example, I don’t like being constantly asked for the same thing as it makes me feel like I’m not delivering and subsequently a failure.

In acknowledging (please note there is a great difference between acknowledgement and acceptance) the issue, we’re now able to deal with it and control its occurrence. For this example, I give myself and my colleagues | clients realistic deadlines. I explain my timeline and if for any reason I miss it, I communicate why that happened and set a new one.

Fun Fact: Most people are receptive to changes once they know what’s happening – so communicate!

Now that I have acknowledged the issue, what's next?


Does this person have an ulterior motive?

Sometimes, things can be said innocently and carry no additional meaning or reason. Other times, someone has made a calculated decision to try and solicit a specific response from you. Identify the difference.

Is there something I need to address?

Feedback is a gift. A gift wrapped in brown paper is just as valuable as the gift wrapped in satin, it is what’s inside that counts. Do I need to filter the way in which this was presented to glean the value in what is being said?

Does this require validation?

Not everything warrants your time, attention and most importantly response.

Being able to answer these questions is critical to what you choose to do next.


Do I respond or do I ignore?

Will responding add or subtract from the situation?

If my answer is, ‘I have a chance to make a positive impact either to myself, the communicator or the situation through response – then that’s what I’ll do.

However, if my response will do more harm than good, either to the communicator or myself, I reward my process by not responding.

Identifying your communication triggers is the first step in becoming a better communicator. At the end of the day, effective communication is measured by the receipt of your message in the vein in which it was communicated. While certainly in some instances, ineffective communication could result from a myriad of factors outside of your control such as medium choice and environment, it’s always best to address home, or that which we have control over, first – ourselves. You can control your reaction and train yourself to respond in the way which you need to in order to address your communication triggers. Once that’s done, if you can identify other ways in which they could become more effective in communicating, in a way that’s kind and constructive, then that’s what you should do.

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