Hot Buttons: Four Ways to Manage Your Reaction

by | Apr 30, 2015

(Hint: Some are better than others!)

Hot buttons: Some arrive unexpectedly in an instant and others you know well. In either case, hot buttons issues have a serious impact on your ability to make effective decisions. A hot button issue is a memory stored in one of the oldest parts of your brain. For some reason, that memory has been marked as a threat. Anytime that “threat” memory is triggered, the fight/flight response, located in the amygdala, is activated. It goes to work quickly and takes over energy that would typically be used for cognitive functioning in the prefrontal cortex. In short, the threatened brain takes the thinking brain offline in order to use its energy for fight or flight. What can you do to manage that emotion-filled reaction? You have several options; however, they are not all effective particularly for a leaders. Which works for you?

Suppress the emotion. You know the mantra, “There’s no place for feelings at work.” We were taught that work should be emotion-free so that when an emotional event happens, like a hot button issue, we try to suppress it. However, suppression doesn’t work and, in fact, it is counterproductive. Brain studies show that when a triggered person tries to suppress emotion, the amygdala is still active. Suppression doesn’t calm it. Suppression, however, requires a lot of mental energy. It brains the energy that would normally be used by the prefrontal cortex. With less energy, cognition loses accuracy. It’s like trying to do your best work in the dark.

Express the emotion. Let ‘er rip! Cry, scream, yell…do whatever the emotion urges. Frankly, there have been moments when I’ve done all of these, but they are certainly not my best leadership moments and not anything I care to repeat. It’s an option but perhaps not your best option.

Notice and name. Notice and name is a process of noticing the emotion and consciously giving it a name. It sounds like a wimpy way to handle a volatile situation, but it works. Here’s why. FMRI studies show that the cognitive brain is engaged is when a person makes the effort to notice the emotion and fish around in their head for a name, description or metaphor. The naming process deactivates the amygdala and reactivates the prefrontal cortex. Your reactivity is calmed and conscious processing returns. And, it’s easy to do. Why not give it a try?

Reappraisal. This is another conscious process that may particularly useful after you notice and name the emotion. Once there is some semblance of calm, ask yourself if there is another way of viewing the situation. You see, hot button reactions are fear-based and not usually accurate. There is bound to be an alternative perspective. If not, you’re not looking hard enough. Looking for other options also engages the cognitive brain so that the amygdala begins to quiet.

There you have it. Suppression doesn’t work, expressing the emotion may not be appropriate. Naming and reappraising the situation are remarkably simple and effective. Loss of control changes to reasoned thought. I’ve personally used these techniques. For some events, naming the emotion is enough to work through it. Other times, the emotion is more stubborn. It takes effort to find a different way to see things but that effort alone helps me to “settle my little motor down” as my mother always said. Now it’s your choice. What will you choose?


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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