When You Don’t Want to Poke the Bear, Pet the Bear…

(And What to Do When You’re the Bear)

5 minute read

There are hundreds of internet memes out there about how pointless it is to tell an upset person to “calm down.” Telling an angry person to calm down works about as well as baptizing a cat. Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down. Or for the purposes of our conversation today, it makes no sense to poke an angry bear.

When someone is emotionally triggered and we want to respond skillfully, the best thing to start with is to “pet the bear” by offering empathy. Acknowledge their reality. Verbalize what you see by suggesting: “It sounds like you’re really angry.” “It sounds like you’re frustrated.” Not, “Gee, you’re angry,” which sounds like an accusation or something wrong that needs to be fixed. No, a skillful approach is empathy: “It sounds like you’re angry, frustrated, disappointed, etc.”

As the calming person, recognize that it may take a while for the upset individual to calm down. Acknowledging their emotions may temporarily lead to even more anger, because acknowledgement creates a safe space and recognition. They may not have realized that they were triggered until your observation, and with that recognition the feeling becomes conscious and even more real to them. The key is to empathize so that you can have a productive conversation and they can return to a neutral state. This may take time.

Taking a break is often a good choice of action: “Let’s take a break and cool off. We’ll resume after lunch/tomorrow/next week.” Correlate the size of the break with the size of the trigger. The bigger the trigger, the longer the recess should be. It’s also a good idea to informally check-in with the person before formally resuming to see if they’ve had a chance to process, so they can return for a more skillful, collaborative conversation.

When a person is triggered, they are experiencing the often-talked-about “fight or flight” response. There is no shortage of information available on fight or flight responses, which is broader than the scope of today’s conversation. However, the ultimate the point we wish to make on this topic is that, as the body prepares to fight or flee, it sends a larger supply of blood to major muscle groups, borrowing blood flow from other, less important parts of the body. Included in the “less important” parts is the newest part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for logic and reason. If there is no blood flow there, of course there is no capability for rational thought.

Now, when you’re the bear that doesn’t need poking, there are a number of things to remember that can help yourself calm down. Of course, one of the paradoxical challenges of emotional intelligence is thinking clearly when you’re triggered. Indeed, having the self-awareness to even notice when you are triggered—and the self-discipline to adjust your own behavior in the midst of it (see paragraph above)—takes practice. Learning to manage your own emotions can sometimes involve an accountability partner, someone you deputize to step in and suggest a time-out or that this may be a good opportunity for you practice your steps to “de-trigger” (notice we did not say “calm down”).

Again, there is a wellspring of information out there on how to deal with strong emotions. The first suggestion is typically to breathe deeply. Breathe in deeply to the count of 4, hold your breath to the count of 6, and exhale to the count of 8. Deep breaths that push the diaphragm downward and expand the belly enact the parasympathetic nervous system, causing a release of chemicals into the digestive system (and other parts of the body) that creates a calming effect.

Another approach to unhook the fight or flight impulse is to change one’s physical position. Stand up and walk around. This creates shifts in body imagery and chemistry, with the added benefit of removing you from the triggering situation. We have worked with clients who were easily triggered by meetings when things were going poorly. Unless the meeting is theirs to run, we coach these clients to excuse themselves to the bathroom when they become triggered, to go into a stall, sit down, and breathe deeply for 5 minutes or until they regain composure and can return to the meeting. (As a side note, if you are running a meeting in which a person becomes emotionally triggered and wants to leave the room, by all means, let them leave. You’re doing no one any favors by insisting all parties stay in the room and “work things out.”)

Another way to break the fight or flight cycle is to distract the brain. This can be done in a number of ways. Count to yourself. Identify and name to yourself the items you see around you using descriptive words: brown desk, black pen, vertical blinds. These practices ground you in reality and tell your amygdala that there is no need for adrenaline, interrupting the fight or flight response.

Last, but emphatically not least, if your emotions present a recurring challenge to your ability to work skillfully with others, consider speaking with a therapist about it.

For Next Week: If, as part of your leadership development, you’ve identified (or had identified for you) the need to strengthen your emotional intelligence, start by making a note in your planner to identify each time you get emotionally triggered. Where were you? Who was present? What was the topic at hand? What thoughts were coming to mind? This is an effective first step to move in the direction of greater self-awareness.  As they say in twelve-step recovery meetings, “We admitted we had a problem…”