• Are you aware of your “buttons”?

    No, I don’t mean shirt or jacket buttons. You know what I mean—our default reactions in tough moments. We all have them.

    Some of our friends, family, and colleagues—and especially our children—know exactly how to push our buttons. When they do, our reactive responses often lead to unproductive behaviors and outcomes. After years of conditioning, though, it’s difficult to change these defaults.

    Although we may not be able to eliminate these buttons, we can take steps to control our reactions. The first step is to recognize and put a label on the button. Try to dig deep to understand the fundamental worry or insecurity beneath your triggers. Are you sensitive to being dismissed, ignored, or challenged? Second, it is helpful to know when your button typically gets pushed. Does the sight of someone rolling his or her eyes set you off? Is there a question or statement you can’t resist reacting to? Third, examine what your default reaction looks like. Are you immediately defensive, angry, or hurt? Do you lash out or withdraw? How does your response make a tough situation worse?

    I call one of my buttons the “you’re wrong” button. My “you’re wrong” button gets pushed after someone reacts to what I intended as an innocent suggestion or casual comment. I don’t like being told I’m wrong. I’m okay with a different point of view, but “you’re wrong”—that’s a different story. “You’re wrong” feels so confrontational and sounds so final; it usually shuts down the conversation. My default response is to build a logical argument to defend my position and prove the other person wrong, but this usually makes the situation worse. By digging in my heels, I miss the opportunity to learn what was behind the “you’re wrong” comment in the first place. A conversation that started as an innocent statement can easily devolve into an argument that makes all parties uncomfortable.

    I recognized my “you’re wrong” button quite a while ago. Although I’ve been unable to eliminate it, I’ve installed a kind-of circuit breaker, a pause, between the pushing of my button and my response. That pause allows me enough time to consider some overrides:

    • Maybe they’re right—I might be wrong.
    • Maybe it has nothing to do with right or wrong but is merely a difference of opinion.
    • Maybe it’s not about what I said but how I said it.
    • Still, maybe it has nothing to do with me or my assertion but is really about some vulnerability or insecurity in the other person.

    I’ve learned that I can inadvertently push other people’s buttons without even knowing it, so I need to be aware of my buttons and conscientious of others’ as well. Why is life so complicated?

    Pushing Your Thinking

    • Are you aware of your buttons? Which ones, when pushed, create the strongest impulse to respond?
    • How do you respond when your buttons are pushed?
    • What can you do to slow your reaction time and create an override?

    Next time you get an unanticipated negative response to something you say, consider whether you may have pushed someone else’s buttons. Be generous with other people’s default reactions—how you respond can escalate or de-escalate the situation.

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