Team activity — Emotional triggers

This activity helps us understand our own emotional triggers in order to choose an effective response rather than react to the emotion. 

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Time required

Approximately 30 minutes, depending on group size.


In advance of the meeting, send each participant the Emotional triggers worksheet | PDF.

Suggested wording 

Triggers are automatic responses to specific stimuli. Triggers can be people, places or things, as well as smells, words or colours. Emotional triggers are automatic responses to the way others express emotions, like anger or sadness. 

For example, you may not have a problem interacting with an angry person, but find it hard to deal with someone who’s crying. The opposite may be true for others. 

Emotional triggers always stir up our own emotional response. For example, if we almost always react with extreme discomfort when someone else cries, then crying is an emotional trigger. If we don’t always respond to anger with our own emotion unless we are in danger, anger isn’t a trigger. 

Triggers are connected to our thoughts, experiences and memories. We connect a previous interaction with a similar emotional trigger to the current situation at hand. 

If you were afraid of clowns when you were a child, seeing a clown now can trigger the emotion of fear. It doesn’t have anything to do with the particular person in the clown costume. Instead, the clown brings up your memories and thoughts of a past experience. 

We’re more likely to blame the situation or person if we don’t understand why we react the way we do. For example, we may say the clown is creepy, but there’s nothing creepy about the person in the clown costume. 

  • Before our emotions arise, we always have a thought
  • Our memories and past experiences influence our thoughts
  • When we have similar emotional reactions to certain behaviours, like crying or anger, those behaviours may be triggers for our thoughts
  • When we identify which thoughts trigger our emotional reactions, we can change them and choose a more helpful response

When we understand that not everyone’s afraid of clowns, we can step back and question what triggered our reaction. Emotional intelligence includes the ability to separate our automatic emotional reactions from our actions. 

Let’s start with the first activity in your handout. Be honest with yourself as you complete this as you will not be forced to share any of it. As you read through the list of potential emotional triggers in your handout, identify those that are likely to cause a reaction for you. Although circumstances and how well you’re feeling may intensify your reaction, usually just reading about one of your triggers will cause you to feel emotion. Please complete exercise one now. 

[Give participants time to complete exercise one.] 

If you had several that were triggers, don’t worry. The following exercises should help you to better manage them. 

Let’s go on to exercise 2, where you’re looking at those emotions that were not triggers for you. These are negative emotions that are easier for you to deal with. In this exercise, you’re identifying why these are easy for you by understanding how you approach or think about these behaviours. Please complete exercise 2 now. 

[Give participants time to complete exercise 2.] 

Who would like to share a thought process when dealing with a negative emotion? 

[If you are having few volunteers, you can simply read the examples on the worksheet and then continue with the following.] 

What we understand is that it’s not the behaviour that triggers the reaction in us. Rather, it’s how we think about the behaviour or what memories it brings up for us that causes our emotional reaction. When we understand this, we can intentionally choose a different response by changing our thought process about those behaviours that are triggering our emotional reaction. In exercise 3, you’re going to list those behaviours that trigger you, what your current thought process is around that behaviour and then an alternative thought that you can choose immediately after being triggered to better manage your response. Please complete exercise 3 now. 

[Give participants time to complete exercise 3.] 

The intention with this activity was to realize that we all have emotional triggers. They are based less on the behaviours of others than they are on our thoughts about those behaviours. We have the power to manage those thoughts in order to better manage how we respond to them. This is a significant part of emotional intelligence and can be invaluable in both our personal and professional lives. We will continue to get triggered but we can begin to work on recognizing that we’ve been triggered and instead of just reacting, we can choose a different thought and how we’ll respond. 

Find more activities like this at Team building activities.

Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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