'You started with me!'















I know the pandemic is taking its toll on our general wellbeing and most people's emotional resilience is ragged and thin, which means an increase in irritation and explosive responses or alternatively biting tongues and gnashing teeth. (Offset by dreams of breaking things or taking up solo retreats in far-away countries.)


In my own interactions I've noticed that I am way more sensitive to trigger words, or conflict hooks. These are words, phrases or behaviours that trigger an almost automatic irritation, defence or anger in you, because consciously or subconsciously you feel like your identity is being insulted or threatened. Your buttons are pushed, you conflict hooks triggered and your automatic responses generally cause or escalate friction.


To understand why you get triggered by certain words or behaviour that have absolutely no effect on your friend, sister or partner, Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey’s taxonomy of six core identities as some of our most common hooks, is a very helpful guide.


  1. Competence – you’re triggered when you feel that someone questions your intelligence, capabilities or skills.

  2. Inclusion – you’re hooked when someone appears to exclude you in some way from a relationship, group, an event, a committee, a meeting.

  3. Autonomy – your buttons are pushed when you feel someone is trying to control you, impose their rules on you, or threaten your self-reliance.

  4. Status – you’re triggered when you feel that someone is threatening or dissing your tangible and intangible assets, including power, position, economic worth or attractiveness.

  5. Reliability – you’re hooked when you perceive that someone is questioning your trustworthiness or dependability.

  6. Integrity – your buttons are pushed when someone appears to be questioning your moral values or integrity.

As you might have guessed ' You started with me' is one of my trigger phrases and I've heard that one too many times in the past couple of weeks. I can feel it curl my spine and flirt with spontaneous combustion. Firstly because no-one can start with you. A phrase like that is defensive, blaming and not helpful at all. Secondly because you can't be started without your involvement. If you believe someone started with you, they clearly did something or used words that triggered you and pushed your buttons.


This is where the problem and solution lie. Your conflict hooks, triggers and buttons are personal to you, your emotional landscape, identity and responses. You can't blame anyone else for your (over the top) reaction to these.


One of the most effective ways to change your response to conflict and have more meaningful interactions with people is to manage your conflict triggers, hooks and hot buttons. Change your narrative from 'You started with me' to 'It stops with me'.


Start with you, stop with you:

  1. Write down a list of words that trigger you. Think about a variety of circumstances. What do your children say to you that trigger you? What does your mother or other family members do or say that pull your conflict hooks? Your manager? What do you friends do or not do, that push your buttons?

  2. Organise these words according to the identities explained above. This will give you a good idea of which part of your identity gets triggered most easily. If you have most of your words fall under "autonomy' then clearly that is important to you and anything that is perceived to threaten your autonomy and independence triggers you. Some categories might not trigger you at all.

  3. Now that you know which words trigger you and why, you can:

  4. discuss the these trigger words with the people who say them and ask if they could maybe substitute with words that are less charged for you. However, it is not up to them to tip-toe around you and check their vocabulary every time they talk to you.

  5. understand that it is in your power to change your reaction to the trigger words. When you hear them, become aware of your reaction, recognise your trigger and change your response!

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Tiny Empire,

37 Buitenkant Street, Cape Town

+27 82 709 7657

 naett@naett-atkinson.com

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