Applied EQ #25: Hot Stuff including Hot Words and Hot Buttons

Over the last few weeks we have been talking about emotional triggers that can lead to emotional breakdowns.  Emotional breakdowns are something we are trying to avoid by applying what we know about emotional self-control.  The focus of this post is on a trigger that can affect many of us:  Hot Words and Hot Buttons. 


What is a Hot Word or Hot Button?  This is a word or issue that triggers a specific and undesirable behavior in us.  This serves as an Achilles heel, leaving us open to threats.

Do you have a word or issue that triggers you?   I recently had a team member whose hot button was failure.  He was acutely attuned to feelings of failure and was on the lookout for that condition.  This stemmed from the fact that he perceived himself as a failure.  There was no data to support his feelings of failure about himself.  Those feelings came from an internal sense of inadequacy that no amount of striving would overcome.

Whether it was rational or true, the individual had this sense of failure about himself.  He also projected on me that I was saying he was a failure.  I did not feel this way about the individual and valued him as part of the team.  However, the words I used triggered him to feel like a failure.  When I told him that I did not believe “the team would succeed” using a particular process, he heard “you are a failure”.  My style of challenging people to perform at a higher level backfired; all he heard was criticism.  It would have been more effective to congratulate, acknowledge and give recognition.  This eventually led to an emotional breakdown for this very capable team lead. 

Do you have hot buttons or hot issues?  Are there subjects that others would just rather not bring up with you?  If you recognize hot words or hot button issues for yourself, what can you do about it? 

  1. Give yourself a checkup.  Are there any specific issues that you tend to react to or cause you to blowup?  Do you think that others avoid bringing up issues to sidestep an argument with you?
  2. Check it out with someone you trust.  There is no substitute for including others in our analysis and getting honest and accurate insights.  More often that not when we suffer from issues we are trying to work it out on our own.  As noted before, this could be a spouse or significant other, trusted co-worker, or a coach or mentor.  Ask them if there are issues that they feel they cannot discuss with you.
  3. Determine the underlying issue and feelings (e.g. feeling like a failure, lack of self confidence).  What is really going on for you?  If you are struggling with self-confidence or inadequacy, perhaps you need to focus on that issue rather than the actual hot button or hot word.
  4. Be gentle or humorous with yourself.  I have said this before but sometimes our best reaction to these things needs to be “whoops, there I go again”.  Putting pressure on ourselves to not react to a hot word or button may only make the problem worse.
  5. Get professional help.  If you find that you cannot get to the issue any other way, seek professional help.

The next post will address another emotional trigger, Criticism & Blame.