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Hosted by Tom Henschel

How to Disarm a Trigger


October 2022

A leader causing upset among her people is given a coach. In conversation, they examine what might be triggering people to be upset with her. The exploration leads to a simple, yet difficult, idea.

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October 2022

How to Disarm a Trigger

Tom Henschel

Creating upset

Meg liked having things in order. As she saw it, order happened when people, including herself, followed rules. Living by rules gave Meg fierce certainty.

Meg was given a coach because people were often upset with her. I asked her what she knew about people being upset with her.

She said, “My standards are naturally high. I’m not unreasonable. But I know what good work looks like and I’m not going to accept anything less.”

“And that upsets people?” I asked.

“I guess so. I guess people don’t like being told they’ve missed the mark. But that’s my job. Sorry!”

I said, “Suppose I was the one who’d missed the mark. What would I hear from you?”

She gave a laugh. “Well, you’d hear something different today than a year ago. This woman from HR I worked with told me I should start with questions and do some investigating before I tell them what needs fixing.”

“Investigating?” I asked. “What are you investigating?”

“What went wrong. Or at least their version of what went wrong. But usually it’s pretty clear that whatever happened, they should have known better. These are not junior people.”

“Has it made a difference, starting with questions? Are people less upset with you?”

“To be honest, Tom, no, I don’t think it’s made much of a difference at all. People are still upset with me.”

“Interesting. So can I go back to that question I asked. Suppose I was the guy who missed the mark. You start by asking questions, after that, what would I hear from you?”

She said, “Probably something like, ‘What you brought me doesn’t match the requirements. Go back and make sure you meet all the requirements.’ There’s not much else to say.”

“And this exchange is upsetting people?” I asked.

“I think so, yeah,” she answered.

I paused, considering, then asked, “Would you agree something’s missing?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

Where’s the trigger?

“Well, what you told me has no trigger. You’re giving feedback. I agree. That’s your job. There’s nothing in that story for a reasonable person to get upset about. But reasonable people are getting upset. So I’m thinking there’s a trigger hidden somewhere in that story and our job might be to find it.”

“Like a blind spot?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Meg. Maybe. Can I ask a different question?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Let’s go back to you telling me I have to re-do the work and meet all the requirements. Those are your words. What are your thoughts? What are you thinking about me?”

“That I hope you’re not an idiot,” she said. “Like I said, these are not junior people, Tom. They should know better. And when they don’t, I worry that maybe they’re an idiot.”

“Strong feelings,” I said.

“Right! If I’ve hired idiots, it’s going to be a problem,” she said.

I looked at her and smiled. “How good an actress are you?”

“What? No! I am not an actress. I do not like being the center of attention.”

I smiled. “No, I mean an everyday actress. How good are you at smiling and telling someone, ‘Why, bless your heart,’ but thinking you wish they’d drop dead?”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m the worst poker player ever. My wife knows not to tell me anything she wants kept secret.”

“But, wait,” I said, “you tell me you’re worried your direct reports might be idiots. Are they going to see that on your face?”

She stopped. A bit alarmed, she said, “I don’t know. I hope not. But they probably do, don’t they?”

I nodded, saying, “If you’re the worst poker player ever, yeah, they probably do.”

Really! They should have!

She thought, then drew herself up. “But hold on, Tom. What’s wrong if they do see that I think they should’ve known better. They should have! If they don’t know better, our team is in trouble.”

I held up a finger. “You said, ‘If they don’t know better, our team is in trouble.’ But it’s not an ‘if’ condition, Meg. It’s the actual real-life condition: they did not know better. They made that mistake. That happened. But why does that mean the team is in trouble? I don’t see why that follows.”

She said, “If we’re making rookie mistakes? Okay, maybe we’re not ‘in trouble,’ but, come on, it doesn’t bode well.”

I didn’t say anything.

She said, “Oh, come on, you can’t tell me that the quality of the work doesn’t matter.”

I cocked a brow and, smiling, said, “Quality matters. I agree. But I don’t think people are upset because you want quality.”

She stopped. “Oh! Did you figure out the trigger?”

“Maybe. I’m thinking maybe the trigger is embedded in the idea that anyone ‘should know better’ about anything, ever. To me, as soon as I think you ‘should have known better,’ I’ve diminished you. I’ve judged you and found you lacking. It’s a shaming statement. ‘Shame on you for not knowing better!’ No one likes feeling diminished or shamed. Yes, your judgment could be triggering people being upset with you.”

Openly, without defense, she asked, “Is that what they’re getting from me? Judgment?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. For myself – speaking as someone who knows a lot about being judgy! – I learned that when I could notice myself thinking those words it was guaranteed that I was being judgy. Learning to hear those words in my head raised my awareness. I saw those words as a thinking error.”

Checking to be sure, she asked, “The words ’you should’ve known better?’”

I nodded yes.

She asked, “Why are they a thinking error?”

A thinking error because . . .

I smiled and pointed at her, “Meg, you should have known better! You should have known exactly what I was thinking and been able to anticipate what was important to me and to know how I was going to react. You should have been able to mind-read me, Meg! Geez! Come on!”

She smiled. “Okay. I see why it’s a thinking error. That’s funny. What did you mean when you said it was guaranteed you were being judgy?”

I stopped and looked away. Then, coming back to her, I said, “The part of me that generates the idea ‘you should’ve known better’ is the same part of me that takes things personally. ‘I am upset because you didn’t do what I wanted in the way I wanted.’ And the part of me that takes your actions personally feels victimized. It’s natural, when you feel victimized, to protect yourself by judging the other person, diminish the other person.”

Now it was her turn to look away. She thought then said, “You know what I picture? A sneer. A classic lip curl. God, my mom did that like a champ. Ew! I hope I’m not doing that to people. That’d be awful.”

I watched. She remained thoughtful.

Finally turning back to me, she said, “Judgment is me thinking I’m better than them, isn’t it? I’ve heard that before – people tell me I think that, that I’m better than them.”

“Huh!” I said. “What do you think about that?”

“Well, I don’t mean to. I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I’m really good at some things, I mean, like really good. Always have been. But there’s plenty I’m not good at, and I know that.”

I smiled, “Those things you’re not good at, do you care about them? I’m guessing when you do care about something, you get good at it. Do you care about the things you aren’t good at?”

She gave a chuckle. “No! One of our girls is into this particular board game. She wants me to play it with her all the time but I’m horrible at it because it’s exactly that – I just don’t care. I keep screwing up the rules.”

“Does she get impatient with you?”

She gave a hearty laugh. “You mean, does she say, ‘Mom, you should know better by now’? Ha! No, she doesn’t. But she’d be well within her rights if she did! But she doesn’t. She’s a lot nicer than I am!”

I said, “I asked about caring because a lot people aren’t as judgy about things they don’t care about. And that may be true for you. I don’t know.”

Looking away again, she said, “I don’t want to judge people. I don’t want to be my mom with the lip curl. I’m going to work on this. Got any good ideas for me?”

“I have one to get you started. One way to become less judgmental would be to hunt for the switch inside yourself that controls all that judgment and, once you find it, learn to turn it off. But I think there’s an easier path that leads to the same place: acceptance.”

I paused but she was watching me, waiting.

I went on. “Accept that people make those mistakes. Accept that your daughter wants to play a game you hate. Accept that people will not mind-read you. Accept that whatever happens is a fact. Accept the facts of your life, then figure out what you want to do next. If you can accept that people do things for their own reasons, not yours, what is there to judge?”

“I’m not sure I can imagine a world like that.”

“Well, you’ve begun,” I said.

Meg turned her prodigious brain power on acceptance. It was harder than she expected, but she found when she was able to be more accepting, it was easier to show up with The Look & Sound of Leadership.

Core Concepts:
  • “You should’ve known better” is a perfectly normal thought
  • The thought “You should’ve known better” judges and diminishes others
  • No one likes to be judged and diminished
  • You’ve got to be a really good actor for people to not read your judgment of them
  • One antidote to judgment is acceptance. Accept that people are the way they are.

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