A few weeks ago I got a call from the agent of four television stars seeking some assistance from a conflict management expert. As the agent and I chatted, I learned that all four stars are anticipating the upcoming Christmas season, with its family gatherings, fast pace and occasional stress.
All four have reputations—in the public eye as well as in their families—as hotheads, and they really want to get a grip on their hot buttons and have a joyful holiday with those they love. The rep asked if I’d fly north to spend some time with the four of them and see if I could be of assistance.
In our first hours together, it became clear to me that each of the four felt the source of much of their frustration came from other people who “pressed their buttons.” Each felt strongly that if they could just learn how to control others people’s behavior, they’d be better able to manage their own difficult conversations. Uh oh, I thought.
Given one of the star’s significant size and well-known displays of aggression, I was, frankly, a little nervous about what I wanted to share with them. Cautiously, I proceeded.
We talked at length about our hot buttons and the mistaken notion that others press our buttons. In reality, we essentially press our own. Our hot buttons are associated with our identities and how we see ourselves (and want to be seen) in the world. So, we get triggered in conflict when we perceive a threat to an important part of our identity. The key word here is perceived—the threat may not be, and in many instances isn’t, a real threat. We read more into what we’re seeing and hearing because of our individual triggers. And since we don’t all have the same triggers, we’re sometimes mystified why something that wouldn’t bother us is making someone else pretty darn hot under the collar.
There are four well-known conflict triggers and many of us have one or two of them as bigger triggers than the others. As we talked, I realized that each of the four stars had one of the “Big Four” triggers.
The only female in the group of four was the first to connect her conflict behavior with her particular hot button. Lucy, a child star who rocketed to greater fame in a 1965 Christmas show, realized she has a major Competence Trigger. “I’m always telling everyone else what to do,” she mused, “I really did it a lot to Charlie Brown, but Snoopy never let me get away with it.” Whenever she interpreted someone’s comment as a slight to her intelligence or ability, she resorted to meanness or advice giving.
The star called T.A. spoke next. T.A., also known as The Abominable, found fame in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, though he never had a subsequent hit. He’s come to feel sad about the ways his overt aggression has frightened generations of little kids. I told him that I had been one of those kids and we had a nice moment when he put his paw on my shoulder and apologized. T.A. realized that he has a significant Autonomy Trigger, and so tends to feel threatened when anyone invades territory he considers his. Softly, and with a lot of clicking due to ill-fitting dentures, he said, “That’s why I growled and waved my arms when Rudolph came into my mountains. I thought he was trying to invade the little territory I had left to call my own.”
There was a short, thoughtful silence, and then Professor Hinkle spoke. Removing his black top hat, he stared at it in wonder. “I can see my Worthiness Trigger pretty clearly, now that I know to look for it,” he said. He went on that he’d never been a very good magician and the kids laughed at him a lot. “They didn’t think I was worthy of their respect and it really ate at me. But instead of being aware that’s what was bothering me, I took my frustration out on poor Frosty.” It was clear he felt terrible about it now.
The green star spoke last. It was clear to all by then that he has a pretty major Inclusion Trigger. “When I saw Whoville joyously celebrating Christmas without inviting me, I concluded they were deliberately trying to keep me on the outside. I hate feeling excluded, you know, and so I reacted by trying to take away something that was important to them.” He reached down and patted his little dog, still with him after all these years. “Even the dog knew they weren’t deliberately trying to exclude me, but I just couldn’t see it.”
“You know,” said Lucy, “we contribute to a conflict—maybe even create one where none really existed—at least as much as the people we see as our opponents. It’s going to be hard work to avoid reacting as usual.”
“True,” replied the Grinch, “but awareness helps a lot.”
As he finished his sentence, we could hear music in the distance, down in the next valley. It was the joyful sound of joined hands and song in Whoville. We all stood up, joined hands, and sang along.