Managing Triggers: Why You Don’t Have to Fire Your Emotional Gun


Ever felt overwhelmed by your reactions in challenging leadership situations? Explore strategies to manage your emotional triggers effectively, ensuring you lead not just with authority, but with empathy.

When Was the Last Time You Felt “Triggered?”

I suspect it wasn’t in the too-distant past. If you’re on any social media, it probably happened the last time you opened the app or site. If you’re a leader, odds are someone recently said something or offered unsolicited advice that “triggered” you.

When we experience a strong emotional or psychological reaction, we’ve been “triggered.” Most of the time, this experience is negative in response to some type of stimulus that just rubs us the wrong way.

I’ve been interested in this term for quite some time. I’m unsure when this word entered our everyday vocabulary, but it seems everywhere we look, people are being “triggered.”

How I Recently Caused a Few Emotional Guns to Fire

I triggered a few people during a recent sermon. I was preaching about the massive departure from the church over the last 25 years, how it happened, and what we should do about it. My research on church decline primarily came from the book “The Great Dechurching.”

There are four primary reasons 40 million people have de-churched in the last two and a half decades. Two of the reasons “triggered” people in the congregation.

You can probably guess one: Politics. The other was around parenting and the missed generational handoff.

Politically, according to the research, the rise of the Moral Majority and the marriage of Christianity and the right created unintended consequences. Those in the political middle felt left in the cold politically and spiritually. If moving politically right was a Christian requirement, many moderates felt better allowing their Christian peers to walk away from the political middle while they walked away from the church.

The parenting issue came down to a lack of empathy, racist views, and willingness to listen. Again, according to the research, too many parents in the 80s and 90s suggested their children not ask questions and just do what the church and Bible tell them. The lack of parental openness to discuss and empathize with others was off-putting to many former churchgoers. So they left.

The data is the data. These reasons aren’t the only reasons, but they are empirically valid reasons.

From what I understand, the two individuals who felt triggered by my message are both politically right-leaning and have at least one adult child who’s walked away from the church. When they heard the sermon, they felt attacked by me. They had an emotional response. And I completely get it.

Of course, I never suggested that either of these two people caused their adult child to leave the church. The data presented aggregate conclusions, not individual situations. But when they heard parents were to blame, they were incensed—at me!

Not at the data, but at me. I offended them.

NOTE: Two weeks later, I taught this same message at another church and tried to soften the data. It helped, as nobody felt offended. I never want to offend anyone unnecessarily.

What to Do When We Feel Triggered in Leadership

I bring this up not to disparage their response but to highlight the reality of leadership. As leaders, we will

1) Trigger people and

2) Be triggered by people.

Let’s quickly talk through both and what we should do with each scenario:

1. When we trigger others.

Leaders inevitably frustrate people. The nature of making decisions and leading toward the future is a recipe for frustration.

There are times when our leadership behavior unnecessarily triggers people. When a person approaches you with frustration, our first step should not be defending our actions or words. Instead, great leaders ask questions and listen intently to the responses. If you realize you are in the wrong, you should apologize. And quickly. Often, a heartfelt apology helps the other person put their gun and trigger away.

Of course, there are other times when people’s frustrations are less about you and more about them.

Take the people who felt hurt by my sermon. I could have offered that data more empathetically (as I do when teaching this message now). I didn’t caveat it or say, “This is what the data shows, but please don’t necessarily take the data as a grade for your personal behavior.” I offered up the findings without softening the edges. I’ll own that.

At the same time, it’s possible a bit of pride and conviction caused these people to feel triggered. Conviction is a powerful emotion. As is pride. I’m only guessing, but it’s possible these two people don’t want to consider their potential responsibility (pride) and feel emotional when considering their children’s church participation (conviction).

In this case, it’s also likely they have felt these emotions, and my message resurfaced their feelings.

As a leader, with empathy and openness, it’s healthy to listen first, ask questions, and help you and them draw non-emotional conclusions.

2. When others trigger us.

Being triggered is a reaction to something or someone. While another person may cause the problem, we hold our emotional gun.

Nobody can pull our emotional trigger but us.

When we realize being triggered is our decision, we can better regulate and holster our weapons.

For example, when someone is rude to you, you’re not required to return the favor. You don’t have to respond in anger when a person criticizes you. Pulling your trigger isn’t mandatory when people offer you unsolicited advice or behave in an untrusting manner.

Great leaders learn to respond, not react. It’s an adult version of counting to ten.

Moreover, when you feel a pending psychological or emotional reaction, it’s a red flag that, perhaps, you are wrong. You do have something to own. You have made a mistake or caused harm.

When I discovered that I had triggered two people in the congregation, my first response was to seek to understand, not to blame them. I wanted to know what I said and why they felt offended. I’ve offered to apologize.

As a leader, I’d also like to ask these two people why they reacted emotionally. “Is it possible that my words are not as much the problem as something else bubbling up in your heart?”

As leaders, we frequently get triggered. Decide in advance to keep the safety on your emotional weapon and process before reacting.

Putting the Safety On Our Emotional Life

It’s impossible to avoid emotionally charged moments. However, it is possible to maintain control over your emotional life and better regulate when you pull the trigger.

But remember, you’re holding your emotional gun, and you’re the only one who can fire it. You’re responsible for your reactions, no matter what is said or suggested.

Great leaders learn to process and respond rather than emotionally react.

Greater leaders do this and walk alongside others to help them do the same.