Trigger Words: Use With Care

Trigger Words in the Language of Leadership

-Mark Haeussler, CEO

Trigger words are those that convey a strong emotional message in the listener.  Used well, they can elevate a logical conversation into the emotional realm that will increase the level of engagement.  A sentence such as, “I have spoken with the customer complaint area, and they have illuminatedme on the issues from their perspectives…” can engage others with a certain emotional experience; people conclude that you really listened and considered their input.

Done poorly, trigger words can send someone down a negative spiral that may require substantial effort to shift.  In this context, being triggered means being upset to the point of losing some or much of our leadership effectiveness.; being off-center.  When negatively triggered, people have to listen through a fog of strong emotions as they attempt to listen to content.  Guess which matters most, words or emotions.  We’ve all been triggered – we know the answer.

Occasionally we trigger those who follow us on purpose, such as when there is apathy displayed about a significant breakdown; do so with great care.  In addition, a key responsibility in leadership is increasing our ownability to not get triggered by others and to decrease the likelihood of triggering others, unless done so with great intent.  What are your own trigger words?

Generally, no one performs at their best when they are triggered, as a series of unfavorable chemical reactions cascade into the brain.  Negative trigger words slip into our conversations because we are thoughtless. Even as a self-aware leader, my experience as a volunteer medic might produce a different reaction to something described as a “heart-stopping idea” than what is intended.  Impact matters more than in intent; it is the impactof the words that matters, not the intent of the person speaking them.  The best advice:  Use trigger words intentfully.  Below are examples of trigger phrases to avoid; consider where you or others might go, emotionally, hearing these:

  • Oh my god, just shoot me.
  • What were you thinking?
  • Why are you so upset?
  • Can you try not to…?
  • You’re not listening…
  • No offense, but…
  • Just get over it.
  • Unfortunately…
  • I’m sorry if…
  • And even the misplaced sigh.

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